A day after showcasing a successful partnership in Utah between industry and the conservation community to protect environmentally sensitive areas while developing America's energy resources, Secretary of the Interior Ken Salazar and U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service (FWS) Director Dan Ashe today met with oil and gas industry representatives to emphasize the importance of energy development in the Permian Basin and to highlight expanding voluntary conservation efforts for the dunes sagebrush lizard on the part of ranchers and the oil and gas industry.
"Expanding responsible oil and gas development is a top priority for President Obama and his administration as part of an all-of-the-above approach to American energy," Salazar said during the meeting at a ConocoPhillips site outside Midland. "As we pursue this goal, I commend oil and gas operators in Texas and New Mexico for their voluntary participation in conservation agreements to protect this ancient landscape and I encourage their continued stewardship efforts as we pursue balanced energy development."
In New Mexico, which contains 73 percent of the lizard's habitat, 29 oil and gas companies and 39 ranchers are participating in a voluntary project to help conserve the dunes sagebrush lizard, which has been proposed for listing under the Endangered Species Act (ESA). If science shows that the lizard requires listing under the Endangered Species Act, landowners who have entered into a voluntary conservation agreement will receive assurances that no additional conservation steps above and beyond those contained in the agreement will be required. These conservation efforts now encompass more than 95 percent of the habitat area in New Mexico, with no known adverse impacts on energy development.
In February, the Fish and Wildlife Service signed an agreement ("Texas Plan') with the Texas Comptroller of Public Accounts that allows landowners -- oil and gas companies and ranchers -- to enter into voluntary conservation agreements that help provide certainty for development and protect the shinnery oak dunes that the lizard inhabits and that are characteristic of southeastern New Mexico and West Texas. Individual shinnery oak plants are known to extend over dozens of acres and can achieve ages of more than 13,000 years. Approximately 70 percent of the habitat area for the dunes sagebrush lizard in Texas, which contains 27 percent of the lizard's total habitat, has already been enrolled in the voluntary conservation agreements.
The Texas Plan was developed locally in collaboration with the Texas Parks and Wildlife Department, Texas A&M University, the Texas Oil and Gas Association, other state and county government agencies, local landowners, representatives from the ranching community and oil and gas operators and development companies in the area.
"It is good to see so many members of the oil and gas industry step up to the plate to voluntarily conserve this unique portion of the southern Great Plains," said Fish and Wildlife Service Director Dan Ashe. "The scientists and professionals in the Fish and Wildlife Service will take these early, proactive measures into consideration in any final listing decision."
The Fish and Wildlife Service proposed to list the dunes sagebrush lizard as endangered in 2010 and is currently reviewing and analyzing public comment on the proposal in anticipation of a final decision in June. Under the law, the agency must make listing decisions based upon the best available science. The Fish and Wildlife Service had extended the timeline for a final decision to six months to allow the maximum time for scientific study and voluntary conservation efforts.
If the dunes sagebrush lizard is listed as endangered or threatened, the Texas Plan would act as a Habitat Conservation Plan for those companies and other landowners who participate, enabling them to continue to develop oil and gas while ensuring the long-term health of lizard populations.