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"Size of Lizard's habitat to be part of listing process"

Sep 13, 2023

"The Fish and Wildlife Service has extended the public comment period on the proposed listing to Oct. 2"

Mella McEwen, Oil Editor

Midland Reporter-Telegram

Experts in conservation programs for the dunes sagebrush lizard shared their experiences and outlook for potentially listing the lizard as "endangered" under the Endangered Species Act.

They also offered advice to those active in the lizard’s habitat, primarily found in Andrews, Crane, Ector, Gaines, Ward and Winkler counties.

“The sooner folks enroll” in conservation plans, “the more compelling story we have to tell the Fish and Wildlife Service,” said Chris Jenson, director of Canyon Environmental, which holds the 2020 Candidate Conservation Agreement with Assurances for the lizard.

Jenson’s organization is one of two that hold permits in Texas for the lizard. The other is the American Conservation Foundation, which has held the Texas Conservation Plan permit since late 2020.

The ACF investigates and implements conservation plans utilizing science-based solutions, said Gene Richardson, president of the ACF during an information call Wednesday morning. Richardson said the TCP is focused primarily on upstream, midstream and landowners while the 2020 CCAA was designed for the sand mines that began operations around 2020, with options for upstream and midstream operators, agriculture, alternative energy and local governments.

Steve Manning, president of Natural Resources Solutions and qualified third-party consultant for ACF, cautioned that those wanting to operate in the lizard’s habitat need to be aware of two timelines.

One is listing the lizard as endangered, he said. The Fish and Wildlife Service has extended the public comment period on the proposed listing to Oct. 2, with a final decision to be issued July 3, 2024. But there is also a second timeline for the service to designate critical habitat for the lizard. That decision is due a year later, in July 2025, Manning said.

“You need to be aware of critical habitat, too,” he said. “Don’t wait to determine if you’re at risk.”

Manning and Reynolds noted that the two conservation agreements use different maps – the ACF utilizes the Hibbitts map, which covers a 197,604-acre area of the habitat and was drawn utilizing expert opinions. Jenson said that, under agreement with the FWS, his organization uses the Hardy map, which covers 237,327 acres drawn with expert opinions and high-quality GIS data.

The FWS has issued a 2023 habitat analysis that covers 906,688 acres, and Manning warned those active in the habitat that the area could be larger than expected.

Said Jenson, “One thing that’s critical to remember is the FWS has some wild ideas of what to propose for habitat. These maps are problematic at best and the expansive way they model what could be habitat is troublesome. This is a precursor of where the FWS is likely to want to go and they seem to think they can be as expansive as they want.”

One positive development, Manning said, is that the FWS proposed ACF and Canyon Environmental get together to align the Hibbitts and Hardy maps.

“The fact they proposed that, that they came to us is a good sign to me,” he said.

Jenson concluded that the conservation plans are a way for the industry to show it can be effective in conserving habitats and can demonstrate success.

“Going forward, we will have a lot of opportunity to show the FWS what success looks like,” he said.

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