CEHMM - Locals Say Sagebrush Lizard Ruling a Win

CARLSBAD — Emails and phone calls across southeastern New Mexico were burning up the lines Wednesday as unofficial word spread that the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service was not going to list the dunes sagebrush lizard as an endangered species.

Finally, by mid-morning it was official. Department of Interior Secretary Ken Salazar formally announced the decision against the listing and the mood in Carlsbad and Eddy County seemed predominately celebratory.

Sen. Tom Udall, D-N.M., said in a telephone interview that until this week, having no listing for a species tapped as a candidate species has been unheard of.

"Today's decision is unprecedented in the history of the Endangered Species Act," Udall said. "It represents a potential breakthrough in maximizing ecosystem preservation and minimizing conflict.

"It's the result of months of collaboration and serves as a testament to the positive efforts of New Mexico Land agencies, ranchers and oil and gas producers who reached a compact that simultaneously protects the local economy and the lizard," Udall said. "The end result proves that over-heated political rhetoric and conflict are not the most effective way to resolve disputes over conservation. I hope it will serve as a model for future agreements."

After initially proposing federal endangered species status for the lizard in 2010, pursuant to a litigation settlement, the Fish and Wildlife service worked with businesses and local interests to establish Candidate Conservation Agreements that were crafted to stabilize the lizard population, work on habitat restoration and allow the oil and gas industries and the agriculture industry to continue to thrive.

Udall said Wednesday that more than 90 percent of the lizard's habitat in New Mexico is protected through the agreement.

The Center for Excellence in Hazardous Materials Management in Carlsbad is the unified permit holder under the Agreements and manages the conservation efforts with Agreement partners and the Fish and Wildlife Service. The organization was instrumental in the development and implementation of the agreements.

Doug Lynn, Center executive director, said the decision not to list the lizard demonstrates the effectiveness of collaboration.

"It is the culmination of years of hard work by a diverse, talented group of dedicated individuals who endeavored to simply do the right thing," Lynn said. "When affected parties put their differences aside and instead put their collective resources to work, you see results like this.

Rancher and Eddy County Commissioner Lewis Derrick, who led the charge against the listing on behalf of Eddy County and his constituents, said he is pleased with Fish and Wildlife's decision.

"It's a good decision," Derrick said. "We are already doing things through the Candidate Conservation Agreements we have in place. We have the science on our side. Eddy, Lea and Chaves counties, along with West Texas counties, private and federal landowners and the oil and gas industry worked together for the past 18 months to show the federal government the science and that we are protecting the lizard."

Asked if he thinks environmental groups pushing for listing the lizard as an endangered species will file a lawsuit against the Fish and Wildlife Service, Derrick replied, "I hope the environmental crowd don't sue, but they could. If they do, we have the science on our side and we can intervene if they do."

Eddy County Commission Chairwoman Roxanne Lara said that Fish and Wildlife's decision shows that when local governments are involved in the process and voice the concerns of the residents and stakeholders, the federal authorities will listen to that voice.

"The Candidate Conservation Agreements brought together government agencies, ranchers and oil and gas producers to successfully collaborate on a plan to protect the species and to protect the local economy simultaneously," Lara said.

"Since the proposed listing, another collaboration has taken place, this time, with Sens. Bingaman and Udall and Rep. Steve Pearce (R-N.M.) joining the table to voice the local concerns," she said. "Collaboration is key to good decisions and I'm so proud of all the people that worked hard to get to this day."

Steven Henke, New Mexico Oil and Gas president, said the decision not to list the lizard validates the proactive and collaborative work by the private sector and government.