A small lizard native to southeast New Mexico is the latest animal to spark a debate between environmentalists, the federal government and oil and gas operators.
A federal report says the habitat for the dunes sagebrush lizard has shrunk to only about 655 square miles in the Mescalero Sands area, the Carlsbad Current-Argus reports. That's a region east of Artesia and northern Eddy County.
Environmentalist groups that have recently sued the federal government to force it to protect the lesser prairie chicken are looking at similar action to help the dunes sagebrush lizard.
"The dunes sagebrush lizard has long been in need of Endangered Species Act protection and new threats from frac sand mining are only compounding the problem," said Jason Rylander, senior counsel at Defenders of Wildlife. "Listing the dunes sagebrush lizard is a key first step toward conserving this species."
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But oil and gas operators and ranchers in the lucrative Permian Basin have strongly opposed the listing for few it could disrupt their businesses and add extra cost.
Officials in southeastern New Mexico say they won't stop fighting to keep the lesser prairie chicken off the federal protected list despite a pending federal lawsuit. They have also vowed to stop any effort to add the lizard.
The rare lizard remains unlisted as endangered by the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service but is listed as endangered by the New Mexico Department of Game and Fish.
The dunes sagebrush lizard was described as light brown and spiny, with stripes on the body.
It's only active between April and October in large sand dunes throughout southeast New Mexico in Eddy, Lea, Chaves or Roosevelt counties.
The dunes sagebrush was also found in West Texas in Andrews, Cochran and Crane counties.
In 2012, candidate conservation agreements were offered to landowners in Texas, intended to see locals voluntarily take on conservation actions ahead of, and preventing a listing.
Similar agreements were also put in place to conserve the habitats of the Texas hornshell mussel and Rio Grande river cooter in the Black River of southeast New Mexico.
Such measures included banning occupancy with 200 meters of areas designated by the FWS as dune complexes where the lizard resides, along with removing nearby caliche pads, reconstructing and redirecting roads and limiting subsurface exploration for minerals such as crude oil and natural gas.