Texas-New Mexico Newspapers SANTA FE -- Ranchers, oil companies and U.S. government workers have created a way for the dunes sagebrush lizard to survive, making it unnecessary to designate the rare reptile as an endangered species, Interior Secretary Ken Salazar said Wednesday. "The effort is nothing short of historic," Salazar said in a conference call with reporters. He said voluntary agreements to save the lizard and its habitat were a blueprint on how to simultaneously protect wildlife and private business interests. Daniel Ashe, director of the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, earlier Wednesday ruled against endangered status for the lizard, which exists only in four counties of southeastern New Mexico and four others in West Texas. Ashe called it "a science-based decision," and Salazar said a statistical analysis proves it. Salazar said 650,000 acres in Texas and New Mexico - 88 percent of the lizard's habitat - now are covered by voluntary agreements to protect the species. This method ensures the reptile's future, Salazar said. Mark Salvo, of the conservation group WildEarth Guardians, disagreed. "There is no species more deserving of federal protection than the dunes sagebrush lizard. Existing conservation measures, particularly in Texas, are so weak that I fear the species may become extirpated in parts of its remaining range," Salvo said. Salvo said U.S. Rep. Steve Pearce, R-N.M., and oil and gas industry executives had run a campaign of misinformation, saying thousands of jobs would be lost if the lizard were listed as endangered. "We hope the secretary and the Fish and Wildlife Service weren't badgered into withdrawing the listing proposal by Representative Pearce and the oil and gas industry, who have declared a jihad against a 3-inch lizard," Salvo said. The Center for Biological Diversity also criticized the ruling, saying Ashe ignored science and sidestepped the intentions of the Endangered Species Act. In a study last year, the center found that the dunes sagebrush lizard occupies about 1 percent of the public lands where oil and gas drilling occur. It said listing the lizard as endangered would save a species, not imperil businesses. Salazar said he was under no duress. Finding a solution that satisfied industry interests and protected the lizard was a victory all around, he said. As for environmental groups criticizing him, Salazar said he thought they wanted to "keep conflict going, for conflict's sake." A former Democratic U.S. senator from Colorado, Salazar praised two New Mexico politicians from his own party for their leadership in working for the voluntary conservation agreements. Salazar said U.S. Sens. Jeff Bingaman and Tom Udall had helped create "a win-win situation." But it was Republican Pearce who was the loudest and most relentless voice for saving the lizard through voluntary arrangements, not an endangered species listing. From the outset 18 months ago, Pearce fought federal protection for the lizard, saying it defied common sense. Pearce on Wednesday hailed the Obama administration's ruling as a belated but correct decision. "For over a year, New Mexicans have fought against the unnecessary listing of the lizard," he said. "They have demanded that the lizard not be listed without accurate science or at the expense of jobs for hardworking people. Finally, Washington listened..." State Rep. Dennis Kintigh, also an ardent opponent of listing the lizard, predicted that the case would next go to court. He said whichever side lost would sue the federal government. But Kintigh, R-Roswell, said he did not believe environmental groups proved their case for an endangered listing. In New Mexico, the lizard exists in parts of Chaves, Eddy, Lea and Roosevelt counties. In Texas, its range is in Andrews, Gaines, Ward and Winkler counties. Historically, it was found in Crane County, Texas, and possibly Cochran and Edwards counties as well.

Santa Fe Bureau Chief Milan Simonich can be reached at msimonich@tnmnp.com or 505-820-6898. His blog is at nmcapitolreport.com

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