ALBUQUERQUE -- New Mexico on Friday signed a conservation agreement with the federal government to protect more than 387 square miles of habitat for two species that have been the focus of a bitter battle among· environmentalists; politicians and oil and gas developers in New Mexico and West Texas.
New Mexico Land Commissioner Ray Powell said the agreement represents a "monumental step" toward finding a way to protect the Lesser prairie-chicken and dunes sagebrush lizard while allowing for oil and gas development to continue in the Permian Basin.
"We've had enough of the circular firing squads," Powell said during a signing ceremony attended by biologists, project managers and others from state and federal agencies who have worked for nearly a decade to line up conservation agreements with oil companies, ranchers and private land owners.
With New Mexico signing on, nearly 248,000 acres are being added to the conservation effort. Officials with the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service said that is the largest area to be set aside by a single state as part of a conservation agreement.
In all, 29 oil and gas companies and 39 ranchers have enrolled in the effort in New Mexico to cover more than 2.5 million acres.
Fish and Wildlife Service Southwest Deputy Director Joy Nicholopoulos said the agency recently approved a similar program in West Texas and landowners are starting to sign up.
"We believe these agreements are producing real results," she said.
Having more people on the ground monitoring the two species has also helped give the agencies and landowners a better idea of how many prairie-chickens and lizards are out there and which areas include the best habitat.
The agency is expected to decide this summer whether to list the lizard as an endangered species. The prairie-chicken has been on the waiting list since 1998.
With conservation agreements, Nicholopoulos said energy developers and landowners take voluntary steps to protect habitat for the two species. In exchange, the agency agrees not to require more conservation efforts if the species were to be added to the federal list.
Nicholopoulos said saving the prairie-chicken and lizard are important because the two are indicator species that can signal changes in the environment. Learning more about those changes and how to adapt will ensure future generations can continue to benefit from the region's resources, she said.
The listing of the lizard has been a hot button issue for U.S. Rep. Steve Pearce, R-N.M., and some elected officials in Texas. They're concerned a listing would mean curtailed development and job losses across the Permian Basin, which makes up a large chunk of New Mexico's oil and gas industry and accounts for more than two-thirds of Texas' total oil production.
Nearly one-third of the basin's 8.1 million acres is made up of New Mexico trust land. State officials said there are more than 6,000 oil and gas leases in this area.