The Obama administration backtracked Wednesday and announced it will not declare the dunes sagebrush lizard an endangered species, saying voluntary efforts by New Mexico and Texas have headed off the need for the federal government to step in.
The listing of the lizard as endangered become a major test case of the Endangered Species Act as energy companies and local residents battled the federal government for 18 months, declaring victory after the government said it wouldn't invoke the act.
Environmental groups criticized the move, saying the Interior Department ignored the science that shows the lizard's habitat is threatened — which they said should automatically trigger the act.
But Secretary Ken Salazar said that by letting local ranchers and energy companies work out voluntary conservation agreements with the two states, they will end up protecting nearly 90 percent of the lizard's habitat, which he said is the fundamental goal of the federal endangered species law.
"The effort is nothing short of historic," he said.
He called the deal a "template" for working on endangered species conflicts in other parts of the country. That could be welcome news to landowners and businesses that have grown increasingly worried about clashing with the Obama administration over the Endangered Species Act.
The dune sagebrush lizard lives in shinnery oak grasslands in New Mexico and Texas — areas that are also being explored for oil and natural gas. In December 2010 the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service proposed listing the lizard as endangered, which would trigger special habitat protections.
But on Wednesday the service withdrew the proposal, saying the habitat is not as endangered as officials had first thought.
"Based on an analysis of these conservation plans and the protections they provide, we have determined the lizard is no longer in danger of extinction and is not likely to become endangered in the foreseeable future," said Dan Ashe, the service's director.
Under the voluntary agreements reached in recent months, oil and gas companies agreed not to explore in prime but fragile habitat, and in some cases landowners agreed to try to restore damaged habitat.
Mr. Ashe said the agreements are not "legally enforceable" under the Endangered Species Act, but said they are legal contracts between the sides on the ground. And he and Mr. Salazar both said they always can come in later and invoke the Endangered Species Act if the voluntary agreements fail.
Environmentalists had pushed vociferously for the lizard to be listed as endangered, which would have triggered automatic federal protections. After Wednesday's announcement they wondered whether the Obama administration had been badgered into caving to industry interests.
"Biologically, there is no species more deserving of listing than the dunes sagebrush lizard," said Mark Salvo, wildlife program director for WildEarth Guardians. "We hope the species can persist without federal protection."
But Mr. Salazar and Mr. Ash both said the conservation agreements should conserve the species, which means no official listing is needed.
"Based on an analysis of these conservation plans and the protections they provide, we have determined the lizard is no longer in danger of extinction and is not likely to become endangered in the foreseeable future," Mr. Ashe told reporters on a conference call announcing the decision.
Rep. Stevan Pearce, New Mexico Republican and a leading opponent of listing the lizard, said Wednesday's decision showed good judgment on the part of the federal government.
"This is a huge victory for the people who have tirelessly fought to save regional jobs and our way of life," Mr. Pearce said.
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