Looking for volunteers: the dunes sagebrush lizard. Credit: USFWS

Finger-sized and sand-coloured, the dunes sagebrush lizard (Sceloporus arenicolus) blends into the scenery in the small pockets of the American southwest that it calls home. But with controversy swirling around a US government decision last week to not list it as ‘endangered’, the diminutive reptile has become a high-profile symbol of a larger question: can voluntary measures save a threatened species?

A specialist in extreme habitats, the lizard lives only in sand-dune depressions and the groves of three-foot-tall shin oaks (Quercus havardii) in western Texas and southeastern New Mexico. Land-use changes have contributed to fragmentation and loss of this habitat; ranchers use herbicides to remove shin oaks from grazing areas, and in western Texas the lizard's range falls within one of the most productive oil and gas regions in the continental United States.

The Center for Biological Diversity, a non-profit conservation organization based in Tucson, Arizona, petitioned the US Fish and Wildlife Service (FWS) in Washington DC to list the lizard under the Endangered Species Act (ESA) in 2002, and later included it in a lawsuit to list several hundred species. The FWS proposed listing the lizard in 2010, outlining scientific evidence showing that the species faced “immediate and significant threats due to oil and gas activities, and herbicides” throughout its range. The proposal then went through peer review and public comment.

Change of plan

However, on 13 June, the FWS decided not to list the reptile after all, citing “unprecedented commitments to voluntary conservation agreements” in place in both New Mexico and Texas. Texas comptroller Susan Combs has hailed the decision as a “major victory for Texas jobs and our energy economy”.

Opponents say that the decision is a political one, made by an administration that is anxious to avoid election-year threats from the oil industry and members of Congress.

“The difference between the ESA and voluntary conservation is the difference between a very good chance of recovery and a roll of the dice,” says Taylor McKinnon, public-lands campaigns director at the Center for Biological Diversity in Flagstaff, Arizona.

State politicians have long opposed an endangered listing for the lizard, saying that the science to support such a designation is lacking. But herpetologist Lee Fitzgerald from Texas A&M University in College Station has studied the lizard for 19 years and says that “more is known about this species than many that are listed”.

In 2010, the state and the oil and gas industry funded Fitzgerald to update a survey he had done in 20071. The survey identified 28 previously undocumented lizard locations2. Texas officials called the revelation an important step in developing their conservation plans, and the oil-and-gas industry said that it “drove home the point” that the lizard is not threatened by energy production. However, Fitzgerald points out, those 28 sites were on private land that had not been accessed at the time of his initial survey. “We weren't surprised where we found or didn't find the lizard,” he says. “We identified suitable habitat, and if you go to those places, there's a good chance you'll find one.” The problem, he says, is that such habitats are being chopped up or are disappearing due to human activity.

Although voluntary conservation plans are not new, the dunes sagebrush lizard is the first species to be targeted in Texas. In New Mexico, which contains 73% of the lizard’s habitat, such voluntary agreements have been in place since 2008, but McKinnon contends that they have failed to effectively reduce threats to the lizard.

Keeping action at a distance

In Texas, property owners who agree to participate in the state’s conservation plan can sign a Certificate of Inclusion, which designates activities that are allowed to continue, as well as specific conservation measures that need to be done. The motivation is to avert an endangered species designation.

“A lot of landowners feel they don't want someone in Washington, a 1,000 miles and a time zone away, telling them what they can and can't do,” says Jason Brooks, executive director of the Texas Habitat Conservation Foundation, a non-profit organization in Austin created to implement the plan.

The federal government will still play a role in the lizard's protection, says Michelle Shaughnessy, the southwest region's assistant director for ecological services at the FWS. “We have legal responsibility to make sure that things go how they are supposed to go,” she says. “It’s a workable alternative to listing.”

Shaughnessy says that the FWS will also will be watching whether lizard habitat is stabilizing, increasing or decreasing, and has the option to reconsider listing.

The voluntary approach is also being emulated elsewhere in the state. A conservation plan is under way for the prairie chicken, and officials in Williamson County hope that the county's conservation foundation will prevent listing of four salamander species. 

But many fear that voluntary plans lack the teeth to ensure species protection.

“While policies are similar under ESA listing or the [Texas] plan, listing would have enforcement,” says Fitzgerald. “Science doesn't care what policy mechanism is put in place, and it’s going to let you know whether what you decided to do works. But by the time the science lets us know if this doesn't work, it may be too late.”