Debate over dunes sagebrush lizard, lesser prairie-chicken raises the big questions about Western land use

Posted: Oct 22, 2017

It’s spring on the prairie. Among the bird calls, you hear a sound like water bubbling over stones in a river. But there is no river. Instead, this is the mating call of the lesser prairie-chicken, strutting off to fight off his rivals and claim his mate. Meanwhile, in New Mexico, a tiny brown lizard burrows into a sand dune with three-foot-tall oak trees towering over him. Without swift intervention, these scenes may be banished to the history books.

The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service (FWS) is currently considering listing the dunes sagebrush lizard and the lesser prairie-chicken under the Endangered Species Act. FWS is required to make a decision on the dunes sagebrush lizard in June of this year; a decision on the lesser prairie-chicken will follow in September. FWS should list both species, not only to preserve them but also to force us to reconsider land use in the Intermountain West and beyond.

The dunes sagebrush lizard, formerly known as the sand dune lizard, is a tiny brown lizard less than three inches long. This little lizard plays a big role in its environment: it eats bugs. Its diet consists of ants, beetles, crickets, grasshoppers, and spiders. Like wolves that prevent overgrazing by eating deer and elk, these lizards keep insects from overwhelming the environment – or your summer picnic.

This miniature lizard lives in a miniature world. It lives in Texas and New Mexico, on sand dunes populated by shinnery oak, an oak tree barely three feet tall. It prefers “blow-outs,” depressions within the dunes – the deeper the better. This world is extremely dynamic, with the wind constantly shifting the dunes and their depressions, forcing the lizard to find a new home. I had never heard of shinnery oak dunes before researching the dunes sagebrush lizard. When I discovered them, I was immediately struck by the limitations of the human scale. A miniature forest for us is a vast forest for the dunes sagebrush lizard. This ecosystem should be preserved, if only to remind us that there are different ways to see the world.

The male lesser prairie-chicken looks ordinary until mating season, with his black and brown stripes. From late February to early May, though, the yellow combs appear over his eyes, the bright red air sacs on his throat inflate, and he becomes a creature unlike any other. This new look is accompanied, of course, by that babbling-brook mating call. These birds help the dunes sagebrush lizard keep the bugs under control, but they also eat plants.

This bird lives in shinnery oak forests, but it also inhabits the sand sagebrush and bluestem prairies of southeast Colorado, southwest Kansas, western Oklahoma, eastern New Mexico, and the Texas panhandle. The sand sagebrush ecosystem is home to other important species, like prairie dogs and burrowing owls. While the bison herds on the bluestem prairie are not what they once were, deer, elk, antelope, and grizzly bears still call the prairie home. These are the landscapes that make the West the West – sand sagebrush is the desert, bluestem the prairie.

These magnificent species – and their homelands – are in danger of disappearing forever. 40% of the dunes sagebrush lizard’s habitat in New Mexico vanished between 1982 and 2010. What remains is fragmented by well pads, pipelines, and agricultural lands. Fragmentation harms the dunes sagebrush lizard by exposing it to “edge habitat,” a combination of its own habitat and the surrounding habitat, which contains hazards the lizard is not accustomed to and cannot defend itself from. FWS has arguably defined “significant portion of its range” in the Endangered Species Act to exclude considerations of historic range. This means that a species cannot be listed merely on the basis of having lost the vast majority of its habitat; the species must face current or future threats. Regardless of whether this method of listing species makes sense, it does not prevent the dunes sagebrush lizard from being listed. The lizard’s current range is threatened by the same activities that destroyed its historic range, and climate change and alternative energy development are expected to further degrade the lizard’s habitat in the future.

The lesser prairie-chicken is faring no better. Its population has shrunk from as many as two million in 1900 to as few as 35,000 today. It has lost as much as 92% of its historical habitat since the 1800s. In addition, livestock grazing has degraded the quality of the remaining habitat. Lesser prairie-chickens build their nests in tall grass to conceal their eggs from predators. Grazing eliminates tall grass in the lesser prairie-chicken’s habitat, making reproduction much harder. Drought has also diminished the prairie-chicken’s numbers, a problem that is expected to worsen as climate change progresses.

The U.S. government has made some efforts to preserve these species. FWS, the Bureau of Land Management (BLM), and several other government agencies and private landowners have entered into a Candidate Conservation Agreement (CCA). This agreement is a good start and includes many features that will help to preserve these species. For example, parties to the agreement must limit mineral development in certain places and at certain times. Removing shinnery oak is discouraged. The BLM has agreed not to site solar or wind facilities in locations that would harm these species, and it has agreed to limit grazing in dunes sagebrush lizard habitat. These are all good conservation measures that will help these species recover.

But the agreement does not go far enough. First, participation is entirely voluntary. Any party can choose to opt out at any time with no adverse consequences. Second, the agreement only applies to the populations of these species in New Mexico, although similar agreements exist for the lesser prairie-chicken in Texas and Kansas.  A key concern for both of these species is connectivity – providing corridors they can use to get from one patch of habitat to another. As climate change worsens, these corridors will become more crucial. Therefore, it is important to protect these species everywhere they occur.

Ultimately, the most important reason for listing these species involves the reasons they are at risk. The dunes sagebrush lizard is threatened by oil and gas development, conversion of its habitat to agriculture, and fragmentation of its habitat by off-road vehicles (ORVs). The lesser prairie-chicken’s habitat has been lost to agriculture and damaged by livestock grazing. These uses – mineral development, agriculture, ranching, and ORVs – contribute to the destruction of countless species and landscapes across the West. By 2015, FWS must decide whether to list the greater sage-grouse, which has declined because of these same uses. The sage-grouse’s range encompasses the entire West – Washington, Oregon, California, Idaho, Nevada, Montana, Utah, Colorado, Wyoming, North Dakota, and South Dakota. If the sage-grouse is listed, we will have to reconsider, on a grand scale, how we use land. Listing the dunes sagebrush lizard and the lesser prairie-chicken will give us an opportunity to practice – to think about how to use land more wisely.

Reconsidering industries allowed on the land raises legitimate concerns about jobs and local economies. Listing the dunes sagebrush lizard and the lesser prairie-chicken could lead to the designation of critical habitat, which would stop many activities from occurring on the lands designated. However, there are ways to access mineral resources without endangering wildlife; horizontal drilling provides access to the oil and natural gas under wildlife habitat without touching the land at all. Similarly, other important industries can be relocated to less sensitive lands.

But perhaps the stories of the dunes sagebrush lizard, the lesser prairie-chicken, and the sage grouse should push us to ask the next question: Are these land uses good for any of us? If they are driving countless species to the brink of extinction and permanently altering our land, won’t those changes eventually affect us? Oil and gas development lead to the burning of fossil fuels and climate change; should we be thinking about other ways to keep the lights on? Irrigated agriculture in the West accounts for only a small percentage of agriculture in America; is the food we get worth the land we use? Do we really need to see places so badly that we should destroy them in the process?

Undoubtedly, these are difficult questions with unclear answers. However, with the growth of the Western population, the development of the West, and the progression of climate change, they won’t get any easier. Listing these species will require us to start asking – and the time for that is now.

-Erin Eastvedt

UPDATE: On June 13, FWS announced that the dunes sagebrush lizard will not be listed.  Learn more about FWS's decision.

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