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The Economist: Cooperative Conservation

By By Ray Perryman
July 7, 2012 at 2:07 a.m.


The dunes sagebrush lizard (also known as the sand dune lizard) is a small reptile with habitat in portions of western Texas and eastern New Mexico. The lizard is only found in a swath of sandy dunes laden with shinnery oak, which is a brushy tree only growing two or three feet high.

The oaks, however, have massive root systems, which stabilize the dunes and allow areas for the lizards to hunt, shelter, and reproduce.

The lizard's range falls in primarily ranch land and involves part of the oil-rich Permian Basin of western Texas.

The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service had proposed listing the lizard as an endangered species with associated habitat protection.

Such an action would have curtailed exploration and production in the Permian Basin area of West Texas, one of the largest sources of oil and gas deposits in the continental United States. In addition to supplying fuels and other essential products, the oil and gas sector leads to substantial economic benefits through exploration, production, transportation, refining, and related activity.

Oil and gas companies represent a large source of employment and support a wide range of service firms, vendors, and others. Moreover, achieving long-term energy security is a national concern that has become increasingly important in light of political unrest in many oil-producing regions of the world. Slowing oil and gas exploration and production would clearly involve significant economic harms.

For ranchers, listing the dunes sagebrush lizard as endangered would reduce the ability to build roads, operate machinery, graze livestock, and many other activities. Various construction projects would also be affected (such as oil and gas or, more importantly to some drought-stricken areas, water pipelines).

A major reason the lizard was not listed was ongoing and future conservation efforts in New Mexico and Texas. New Mexico's agreements have been in place for longer than those in Texas because land there was identified as habitat more than 10 years ago.

In 2005, New Mexico developed a cooperative framework involving voluntary implementation of conservation measures. The idea was that by taking action while the species was still only a candidate for listing, future restrictions could be avoided.

Landowners pay a habitat conservation fee after each surface-disturbing action; the fees are used to restore habitat, reclaim old roads, remove environmental contaminants, and similar actions.

As of May 2012, 83 percent of the dunes sagebrush lizard's habitat was covered by these cooperative agreements. When the acreage controlled by the Bureau of Land Management is also considered, the proportion of New Mexico habitat protected is 95 percent.

The Texas Conservation Plan focuses on avoiding activity within lizard habitat that would further degrade the habitat, reclamation of lizard habitat to reduce fragmentation, and removal of mesquite that is encroaching into shinnery oak dunes. Where it is impossible to avoid the lizard habitat, participants can adopt conservation measures that minimize damage and as a last resort, mitigate for the loss of habitat.

As of May, some 138,640 Texas acres were enrolled in the Plan (about 71 percent of the lizard's habitat in the state). Given the recent development of the Texas plan, there is every reason to believe the acreage covered will rise notably over time.

If the dunes sagebrush lizard had been designated as endangered, it could have had sizable effects on future oil and gas exploration and production from the Permian Basin. Ranching operations would also have been dramatically affected. While protecting the environment is crucial, it is important to avoid undue harm to the economy. Achieving environmental goals through partnerships between stakeholders in the private sector is far preferable, allowing flexibility to meet conservation needs in the least economically damaging way.

Not listing the dunes sagebrush lizard was the right choice. The Fish and Wildlife Service has no data indicating that the numbers of lizards are falling, and now with conservation measures in place, the lizard's habitat has been protected. It was a common sense course of action and a win for the lizard as well as landowners, energy companies, the economy, and all of us as consumers.

Dr. M. Ray Perryman is president and chief executive officer of The Perryman Group (www.perrymangroup.com). He also serves as Institute Distinguished Professor of Economic Theory and Method at the International Institute for Advanced Studies.

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