Fox Sees Conspiracy In Effort To Protect Lizard Species

Blog ››› ››› JOCELYN FONG

In December, the Fish and Wildlife Service proposed adding the dunes sagebrush lizard -- which lives only in New Mexico and West Texas and "faces immediate and significant threats due to oil and gas activities, and herbicide treatments" -- to the Endangered Species List.

Fox has predictably seized on the issue to baselessly claim that protecting the lizard "could cost you a bundle at the gas station," in the words of Stuart Varney, guest-hosting Your World with Neil Cavuto. Varney interviewed Ben Shepperd of the Permian Basin Petroleum Association and went so far as to suggest that efforts to protect the lizard are motivated by a desire to hurt the oil industry:

VARNEY: Why is this happening now? I mean, is there - do the environmentalists just want to protect any and all species, none of them can ever be moved or disturbed in any way, shape or form? Or are they going directly at the oil industry?

SHEPPERD: Well, I think a little of both, Stuart. The environmental groups have sued to list over a thousand species in the last four years and there's no scientific basis for it. And some folks have said that this is a direct attack against the oil and gas industry, which tends to support conservative candidates and also as a way to drive up oil and gas prices to move us hopefully to alternative fuels.

David Asman joined in pushing the conspiratorial claim while discussing the lizard on his Fox Business Show America's Nightly Scoreboard, suggesting that the protecting the species could be part of "a ploy to hurt Texas oil production."

Fox News contributor Monica Crowley added:

CROWLEY: On the little lizard, I am an animal lover. The lizard is adorable.

ASMAN: You're with Alan on this?

CROWLEY: However, this administration has been conducting a war against the oil industry from the very beginning -

ASMAN: Is this part of that?

CROWLEY: -- with environmental regulations, through the drilling moratorium, and that is the primary reason why we've got gas over $4 a gallon.

Last night, Andrew Napolitano railed against the proposed protection of the lizard on his Fox Business show, including it in what he deemed an "all-out vendetta against affordable oil."

While Varney, Asman, Napolitano, and Glenn Beck have all suggested that listing the dunes sagebrush lizard would require oil production in West Texas to shut down, Fish And Wildlife Service officials dispute this claim. Michelle Shaughnessy, the assistant regional director for ecological services in FWS's Southwest district, told the Albuquerque Journal (accessed via Nexis) that these claims are "absolutely not true." Likewise, FWS biologist Debra Hill explained that listing the lizard "doesn't mean we stop everything. It means we use the tools available" to allow drilling activity to continue.

In fact, the Las Cruces Sun-News reported that if the lizard is listed as an endangered species, companies would be able to establish plans to continue drilling while making efforts to conserve the lizard and its habitat -- and indeed, several oil companies have already agreed to do so:

Likewise, in a conference call with reporters, [FWS Albuquerque spokeswoman Charna] Lefton and Michelle Shaughnessy, an ecologist with the Fish and Wildlife Service, said enforcing the U.S. Endangered Species Act to help the lizard would not imperil jobs.

Even with an "endangered" designation for an animal, businesses can continue to be productive and profitable, they said.

[...]

Lefton and Shaughnessy said 25 ranchers and five oil and gas companies in New Mexico had signed cooperative agreements with the U.S. government to help protect the dunes sagebrush lizard and its life-sustaining shinnery oak.

The oil companies that have agreed to drill in ways that will not harm the lizard are Conoco, MARBOB, CONCHO, Devon and BOPCO, the Fish and Wildlife Service said.

Twenty-one other oil and gas companies in New Mexico and another 10 ranchers also are considering the cooperative agreements.

No such pacts have been made in West Texas, but companies there also will be able to establish plans to continue drilling or ranching in ways that do not threaten the lizard's existence, Lefton said. This can be done even if the lizard receives federal protection, she said.

Aside from misleading on the impact of listing the dunes sagebrush lizard as an endangered species, Fox figures also dismissed any justification for protecting the animal, portraying it as a partisan push by environmentalists and those who oppose drilling. However, the Fish and Wildlife Service placed the lizard on the candidate list during the Bush administration, and determined in 2004 that placing the species on the endangered list was "warranted, but precluded by higher priorities."

Additionally, this is far from a targeted assault on the oil industry. As FWS details in the Federal Register, "the infrastructure for wind and solar energy would cause similar habitat fragmentation as that produced by oil and gas development."

Further, Varney did nothing to question or challenge Shepperd's claim that "there's really no evidence to show that this thing is endangered." Rather, Varney brought Shepperd back for an interview on his Fox Business show the next day, during which Shepperd claimed there is "absolutely no justification" for placing the lizard on the endangered species list.

However, FWS provides an explanation of the evidence supporting the proposal to place the lizard on the list. For instance, FWS states:

In 1982, there was an estimated 400,000 ha (1,000,000 ac) of habitat suitable for the dunes sagebrush lizard in New Mexico. Today, there is an estimated 240,000 ha (600,000 ac) of suitable habitat, a decrease of 40 percent.

[...]

Due to habitat conversion and fragmentation, there are historical areas that no longer support populations of dunes sagebrush lizards (Sias and Snell 1997, p. 1; Laurencio et al. 2007, p. 1; Chan et al. 2007, p. 337). In Texas, dunes sagebrush lizards no longer occupy 86 percent of the historically occupied sites. (Laurencio et al.2007, p. 5).

The Almogordo Daily News also reported that Lee Fitzgerald, "the nation's foremost researcher on the dunes sagebrush lizard," said there is a scientific case for protecting the lizard:

A leading biologist says the small lizard found only in eight counties of New Mexico and Texas may need federal protection to survive.

Lee Fitzgerald, an associate professor at Texas A&M University, said the dunes sagebrush lizard cannot live without a particular habitat.

"From a scientific standpoint ... the dunes sagebrush lizard may be judged to merit protection because populations of the species have declined and disappeared," he said in an e-mail.

If the lizard were not protected and the habitat on which it depends continued to be lost, "the species' future would be uncertain," Fitzgerald said.

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