Tiny lizard could block Texas oil, gas exploration

Deep in the West Texas sand dunes is something that some say could threaten the state's oil and gas production:

A tiny lizard.

But it's not just any lizard: It's a dunes sagebrush lizard, also known as the sand dune lizard.

This little brown reptile is a concern for state officials, who hope that federal officials don't designate it an endangered species. That, they say, could disrupt oil and gas exploration in the heart of Texas' oil country, leading to higher gas prices and shrinking dollars for schools.

"It's reptile dysfunction," said Texas Land Commissioner Jerry Patterson, who oversees the permanent school and university funds, which get money from royalties and leases on some of the potentially affected land. "It has the potential to bring oil exploration and production to a halt."

The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, which has had the issue before it for about a decade, is considering protections because oil and gas exploration and ranching are shrinking the lizard's habitat. A decision could come by year's end.

The blunt-nosed lizard at the heart of the issue has bright yellow eyes but is barely as long as a person's hand. The lizard is important prey for a number of other species, including some birds and mammals.

It can be found in the West Texas counties of Andrews, Crane, Gaines, Ward and Winkler -- part of the Permian Basin, known to petroleum officials as the most "prolific oil-producing region in onshore America" -- as well as in southeast New Mexico.

There it lives, in the shade of shinnery oak trees, which look like bushes and are found mainly in the sand dunes. The lizard lives only in dunes that have medium-size sand grains.

Environmentalists say the spiny lizard is in danger of extinction because its habitat has been disturbed or removed by oil and gas development. Shinnery oaks, for instance, have been destroyed by drillers, who clear space and move equipment. They have also been killed by ranchers, who say the plant can be poisonous to cattle.

The lizard has been a candidate for endangered status since 2001, when the Center for Biological Diversity asked the federal government to list it. But this proposal was moved forward at least in part because of a federal lawsuit by the environmental advocacy group WildEarth Guardians.

"I think the current federal proposal is based on a number of years of examining the status of the lizard," said Ken Kramer, director of the Lone Star Chapter of the Sierra Club. "It's not a last-minute sort of proposal."

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