Tuesday, August 30, 2005

Bush judge rules against Interior on desert lizard

Court says Bush Interior Dept. wrong to pull lizard protection, restores proposed listing rule for flat-tailed horned lizard in Arizona and California.

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C. Barrows photo

PHOENIX -- Conservation groups and scientists won an important victory today for the flat-tailed horned lizard, an attractive lizard that looks like a mini-dinosaur and lives in the US in the Sonoran Desert of Arizona, California.

Federal judge Neil Wake, a Bush appointee, ruled Bush’s Interior Secretary Gale Norton’s “withdrawal of the proposed rule violated the Endangered Species Act and the Ninth Circuit’s remand order by failing to evaluate the lizard’s lost habitat…” Wake struck down Norton’s withdrawl of a proposed rule to list the flat-tailed horned lizard as a threatened species, therefore the lizard is again proposed for much needed and overdue Endangered Species Act listing to help it survive and recover.

The Center for Biological Diversity, Sierra Club, Horned Lizard Conservation Society, Tucson Herpetological Society, and Defenders of Wildlife were forced in to court on October 30, 2003 to challenge Norton’s illegal January 3, 2003 denial of Endangered Species Act protection for the lizard (Phrynosoma mcallii), an attractive Sonoran desert native.

My take is Sec. Norton’s unethical denial of protection for the flat-tailed horned lizard will not stand. This is a good win for nature, and greens will keep working to protect and recover this cool lizard. Without listing and critical habitat designation, imperiled wildlife gets only bureaucratic lip-service as they slide toward extinction.

The flat-tailed horned lizard inhabits portions of the Sonoran Desert in southern California’s California Desert Conservation Area (Riverside, Imperial and San Diego counties), Arizona (Yuma county), and northwestern Mexico (Sonora, Baja Calif. N). The main cause for the decline of the lizard is conversion of habitat to urban sprawl and agriculture. Threats include crops, cities, off-road vehicles, geothermal leases, border traffic, gravel pits and highways. Flat-tailed horned lizards feed primarily on native harvester ants. Pesticide drift likely affects ant populations on habitat near agricultural areas.

The lizard is especially threatened near Palm Springs CA, in the Coachella Valley.

“We know of only one remaining population of flat-tailed horned lizards left in the Coachella Valley. That’s an undeniable indicator of decline for an animal that was once found from the vicinity of Snow Creek and throughout the sandy areas of the Valley.” said University of California biologist Dr. Al Muth. “Its ludicrous that the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service dismissed this population as insignificant, and it smells more of politics than biology.”

A pending Interior decision to open 50,000 protected acres of the Algodones Dunes in Imperial County to intensive off-road vehicle use is an example of the deadly management Norton is pursuing for the lizard and its habitat.

As the common name suggests, the species is recognized by its broad, flattened tail but also has long, sharp horns on its head, two rows of fringe scales along its abdomen, a dark stripe along its backbone, and concealed external ear openings. Adults of this species range in size between 2.5 and 4.3 inches long, excluding the tail.

“Despite a multi-party voluntary conservation agreement signed in 1997, Flat-tailed Horned Lizards continue to lose valuable habitat and populations are still declining.” said Taylor Edwards, President of the Tucson Herpetological Society. “A significant threat to the flat-tailed horned lizard is the Yuma Area Service Highway that threatens to divide the last remaining habitat stronghold for this species in Arizona.” He adds, “We’re concerned with the associated urban sprawl that would accompany the highway if it is built, increasing the loss and fragmentation of important flat-tailed horned lizard habitat.”

A proposed rule to list the species as threatened was published in the Federal Register on November 29, 1993. On July 15, 1997, the US Fish and Wildlife Service withdrew its proposal to list the Flat-tailed Horned Lizard as threatened.

That decision to withdraw the proposed listing was challenged in court by conservation groups. On October 24, 2001, the District Court ordered the Service to reinstate the 1993 proposed rule to list the lizard as threatened and to make a new final listing determination for the species. In early 2003 the Service again withdrew that rule, denying legal protection for the lizard. The lizard and its habitat continue to decline.

Attorneys Neil Levine and Bill Snape represented conservation groups in this important case.

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