AUSTIN, Texas (CN) – Texas’ chief tax collector released an updated conservation plan this week that it hopes will help better protect the rare dunes sagebrush lizard that lives in the heart of the oil-rich Permian Basin in west Texas.
If approved by the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Services, the new conservation agreement created by the Texas Comptroller’s Office would take effect in February 2019. It will replace the state’s previous voluntary conservation plan that was adopted in 2012.
Robert Gulley, who oversees the endangered species program for the comptroller’s office, said it addresses numerous problems with the previous agreement, including the inclusion of hydraulic fracturing, or fracking, sand mining companies.
“We’ve tried to go back and think through where have things worked well and where can things work better so we have a system that is durable,” said Gulley, “that is likely to survive not just for a year or through a new administration but several administrations.”
Gulley said the plan replaces the crediting system, which required oil and gas companies to hire contractors to deal with habitat loss. The new agreement will have a system where companies will pay a fee to the state, which will then implement conservation measures.
The 4-inch long, sand-colored reptile has been the center of controversy for years. It lives in rare sand dunes covered in shinnery oak in southwestern New Mexico and western Texas. But the problem is that a big part of its habitat is in the Permian Basin, which has been experiencing an increase in oil and gas production.
The new plan comes three months after two conservation groups, the Defenders of Wildlife and Center for Biological Diversity, submitted a petition to federally list the dunes sagebrush lizard as endangered. The petition claims the state’s plan had failed to protect the lizard and include the rapidly growing frac-sand mining industry in west Texas, which poses a big threat to its habitat.
According to estimates from the Defenders of Wildlife, more than 1,600 acres of the lizard’s habitat has been destroyed in the last 18 months. Much of that has been from the increase in mining for frac sand.
Jacob Malcom, director of the Center for Conservation Innovation at the Defenders of Wildlife, said the revised plan was “definitely better” than the previous one, but still had concerns that it doesn’t do enough to address stratification—a problem that occurs when more than one company has access to a single piece of land—and is not transparent to outside organizations.
“Texas public record law still shields most but not all of the enrollment data from review by the public, even from review by Fish and Wildlife Services,” Malcom said.
The state started developed the original plan when Fish and Wildlife Services previously considering listing the species in 2010.
In an effort to prevent the listing, then-Comptroller Susan Combs worked with oil and gas companies to create a voluntary conservation agreement that would provide incentives for oil and gas companies to join.
At the time, the Texas Comptroller’s Office had just assumed control of the program through a law passed by the Legislature in 2011. It was previously under the authority of the Texas Fish and Wildlife Department.
The federal government approved the conservation plan in 2012 and withdrew its plans to list the lizard.
But conservation groups have long disapproved of the plan, fearing it gives oil and gas too much power and control over the conservation of the species. Following the implementation of the original plan, conservation groups unsuccessfully sued the federal government over its decision to accept the plan.
When Comptroller Glenn Hegar replaced Combs in 2015, he hired Gulley, an expert on environmental law, to oversee the endangered species program and review the plan.
Gulley said his team was initially making updates and improvements to the conservation plan but decided to rewrite the plan earlier this year because of the increase in frac-sand mining in the Permian Basin. More than a dozen companies have started mining sand for use in hydraulic fracking in the west Texas. The process destroys the sand dunes where the lizard lives.
Eight out of 17 frac-sand companies have agreed to the plan, according to the comptroller’s office.
“Our objective is to get a workable program that is both defensible in court and durable,” said Gulley.
Chris Nagano, senior scientist at the Center for Biological Diversity, said his group plans on submitting feedback on the state’s draft and wants to work with the state and federal government on the plan but will take legal action if they feel the dunes sagebrush lizard is not protected.
“If the plan isn’t going to protect the lizard and prevent the extinction, that’s when we’re going to go to court,” said Nagano.
Malcom said Defenders of Wildlife is also planning on sending comments on the draft to the comptroller’s office next week.
He said the group is currently waiting on a 90-day update from Fish and Wildlife Services on their petition that will determine whether it will move forward with the request to list the species.
In the meantime, if the agency approves the state’s new conservation plan, it will present it for public comment before making a final decision.