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For Immediate Release, August 15, 2011

Contact: Jay Lininger, (928) 853-9929

New Mexico Politician Leads Farce "Science" Panel on Endangered Species Act Protection for Rare Lizard

Conflicts of Interest Underline Report Motivated by Debunked View That
Dunes Sagebrush Lizard Protection Threatens Oil and Gas Jobs

ALBUQUERQUE, N.M.— The Center for Biological Diversity blasted a report issued today by the Artesia Chamber of Commerce and led by state Rep. Dennis Kintigh (R-Roswell) claiming that oil and gas development might benefit the rare dunes sagebrush lizard, which has been proposed for protection under the Endangered Species Act. The chamber panel that reviewed the lizard’s proposed listing did not include any scientist with recognized expertise on the species. The genesis of today’s report was a “round table” organized by U.S. Rep. Steve Pearce (R-N.M.), who has repeated long-debunked claims that protecting the lizard would cause widespread economic damage in New Mexico.

“Today’s event was a public-relations stunt, not a science review,” said Jay Lininger, an ecologist with the Center. “Two radical right-wing politicians stacked the panel with people who oppose listing the lizard for protection. The Fish and Wildlife Service already obtained independent peer review of the proposal from biologists, and that’s a whole lot more credible than this bunch.”

In addition to Kintigh, a former FBI agent, the panel includes a Texas rancher, two petroleum geologists, another geologist who studies dinosaur fossils, and a Cowboy Hall of Fame curator who once studied lizards as an undergraduate student four decades ago. Nobody involved with today’s review actively researches the at-risk lizard, its habitat, or land use effects on populations, and many involved publicly opposed federal listing of the animal before organizing today’s review.

For example, in a May 9 opinion essay, Kintigh stated that protecting the lizard could “endanger the economic life” of New Mexico by reducing state revenues from oil and gas drilling. That conclusion already had been debunked by a study released by the Center four days earlier, showing the lizard had little effect on oil and gas drilling in the state. Of oil and gas leases offered by the U.S. Bureau of Land Management in 2010 and 2011, less than 1 percent was set aside for the lizard. The federal agency manages nearly all the lizard’s habitat in New Mexico.

Kintigh’s outlandish claims echo those made by Pearce, who said that “most of the oil and gas jobs in southeast New Mexico are at risk” if the fish and wildlife agency decides to give the lizard federal protection. Pearce has accepted nearly $1.2 million from oil and gas interests.

“The decision to list should be based on science, not baseless rhetoric that inflames rather than informs,” Lininger said. “Today’s review runs roughshod over scientific facts to reach a conclusion based on political ideology about government regulation.”

In 2010 and the first half of 2011, the BLM proposed 52,874 acres for oil and gas leasing in southeast New Mexico. Of that, 2,920 acres (5.5 percent) were identified by the BLM as habitat for the lizard. The agency determined that drilling could go forward on all 2,920 acres subject to conditions intended to protect habitat.

For the second half of 2011, the BLM has proposed 22,383 acres for leasing. At most, 3,484 acres may be habitat for the lizard, according to the BLM. The agency will allow drilling on 2,924 acres (84 percent of habitat) and defer leasing on 560 acres — which is less than 1 percent of all lands proposed for drilling — until the Fish and Wildlife Service makes a listing decision on the lizard.

Debate over protection for the lizard, whose shinnery oak habitat occurs on less than 1 percent of the Permian Basin oil patch in southeast New Mexico and southwest Texas, comes as oil and gas companies are accumulating surplus drilling leases on public lands outside of lizard habitat. 

Oil and gas operators elected not to bid on 15 percent of the leases offered by the New Mexico State Office of the BLM at auction in the past two years. Those leases remain available to industry for noncompetitive bidding at rock-bottom prices. 

The Fish and Wildlife Service, which manages endangered species, has stated that protection of the dunes sagebrush lizard “would not imperil jobs,” and that “there’s just no data to support” claims of economic harm. Protection for the lizard is unlikely to imperil jobs because the wildlife agency almost never halts development activity even where listed animals exist. Rather, it sometimes requires modification of activity to ensure that species aren’t driven extinct.

The dunes sagebrush lizard has the second-smallest range of any North American lizard, living only in southeast New Mexico and western Texas on sand dunes covered by shinnery oak. The lizard’s dunes habitat has long been in decline. The Center for Biological Diversity first petitioned for the lizard’s protection in 2002. In December 2010, the Fish and Wildlife Service proposed protecting the lizard under the Endangered Species Act.

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