McKITTRICK, Calif.— The Center for Biological Diversity submitted a petition today to protect the Temblor legless lizard under the Endangered Species Act. The lizard is a rare sand-swimming reptile that occupies a very small area of habitat near the Temblor Range in Kern County, California, and is jeopardized by oil and gas development.
“Rampant oil drilling in Kern County is causing double damage to the legless lizard, by destroying habitat and accelerating climate change,” said Jeff Miller, a senior conservation advocate at the Center for Biological Diversity. “We can’t continue to allow habitat loss and increased wildfire risk at the hands of fossil fuel developers whose sole concern is profit.”
The entire range of the Temblor legless lizard is a narrow strip of habitat on the west side of the San Joaquin Valley in western Kern and Fresno counties, between the Temblor Range and Highway 33, from McKittrick to Coalinga. This lizard species has only been found at four sites, two located southeast of the Temblor Mountains and another two in Antelope Plain and Pleasant Valley.
The lizards live mostly underground but come to the surface to feed on insects. Being legless is an adaptation that allows them to swim through loose, sandy soils. Their preferred habitat is sandy soils in alkali desert scrub or annual grasslands. They require loose, moist soil for burrowing and need plant cover and a layer of leaf litter for feeding and protection from predators.
Most suitable habitat is privately owned and often developed for oil and gas drilling in Kern County, California’s largest oil-producing county. More than 98% of the entire Temblor legless lizard’s range is open to oil and gas drilling on public and private lands, and the threat to its habitat is growing.
Six new state permits issued last week, for up to 47 new fracking incidents, are all in the imperiled lizard’s range. The Bureau of Land Management recently approved the first oil and gas lease sale of federal public lands in California in eight years, covering 4,000 acres in Kern County, including one large parcel at the southern end of the Temblor legless lizard’s range.
In 2015 Kern County began issuing over 1,000 oil and gas permits each year without environmental review after it adopted an ordinance to streamline oil and gas permitting for up to 72,000 wells. This year a court invalidated the ordinance and its supporting “environmental impact report” for failing to fully evaluate and disclose the environmental damage that would occur. But the county plans to readopt the measure, aiming to bypass environmental review for future oil and gas projects.
Oil and gas development damages lizard habitat by compacting the soil, changing soil moisture levels, removing plant cover and the leaf-litter layer, and releasing spills of oil and chemicals. Legless lizards are also highly sensitive to the noise and light generated by drilling operations.
The legless lizard is also threatened by climate change, wildfires, invasive species, and by habitat loss from urban development and the construction of large-scale solar projects.