The quoted article below concerning the highly endangered Southern Spot-tailed Earless Lizard (Holbrookia lacerata subcaudalis) appeared in the San Antonio Express-News. Since most of the known range of this subspecies coincides with the extensive drilling activity associated with the Eagle-Ford shale extractions, the current petro-boom may constitute the last straw for what was probably the rarest lizard taxon in the state even before the boom. I have herped and lived within its range for 50+ years without ever seeing one (although I have managed to find several of the Edwards Plateau subspecies (H. l. lacerata), which seems to be in slightly better shape than the southern form.
Somewhat ironically, this species has never received "protection" at the state level - even if it had, "protection" in Texas only applies to commercial exploitation and collection by hobbyists, neither of which has ever been a serious concern with this species. It is naive to imagine that the state of Texas would ever impose restrictions on the lucrative petroleum industry that might benefit an obscure lizard that is likely on its way to extinction anyway.
At any rate, it should be amusing to watch the predictably apoplectic reactions of the oil and gas business to even the suggestion that H. l. subcaudalis might be listed under the federal T&E regulations - which actually do impose restrictions on the degradation of critical habitat. The feds caved on the Dunes Sagebrush Lizard (Sceloporus arenicolus) - occupying habitat in west Texas where there is a similar amount of drilling activity - a while back, and I expect they will do the same in south Texas.
On a more positive note, there is a natural history note in the most recent issue of Herpetological Review by Mike Duran, of the Nature Conservancy, and Danny Yandell wherein they report on a population of H. l. subcaudalis on Laughlin Air Force Base, just outside of Del Rio, Val Verde County. A single specimen was also taken in a pitfall trap in the La Salle County portion of the Chaparral Wildlife Management Area several years ago. Interestingly, the focus of the note is that the lizards at the Laughlin site were using the burrows of the Mexican Ground Squirrel (Ictidomys mexicanus) as refugia due to the lack of other cover at that well-mowed location adjacent to the runways at the air base.
From these observations, the authors suggest that a commensal relationship may exist between these two species, at least at that particular location. Having maintained several of these highly irascible little ground squirrels as pets years ago, I remain skeptical - my squirrels were very fond of supplementing their grain diets with meat, including insects, whenever/however they could get it; they were especially fond of fried chicken as I recall.
Duran, C. Mike and Danny L. Yandell. 2014. Natural history note: Holbrookia lacerata subcaudalis: refugia nad commensalism. Herpetol. Rev. 45(3): 500-501.
Lizard could collide with oil and gas
By Jennifer Hiller, San Antonio Express-News
October 4, 2014 | Updated: October 4, 2014 10:10pm
SAN ANTONIO — It's hard to find someone in South Texas who has heard of the spot-tailed earless lizard, much less seen one in the wild.
The lizard grows about as long as a dollar bill and has distinctive dark spots on a sand-colored body.
It once spread across the region and was thought to meander into the northern Mexican states of Coahuila, Nuevo León and Tamaulipas.
But a subspecies of the lizard largely has vanished. It's precise whereabouts are a mystery, but the lizard has the potential to collide with one of the largest oil and gas booms in Texas history. The rare lizard's likely habitat includes large swaths of the Eagle Ford Shale, the prolific oil and gas field south of San Antonio.
As the Eagle Ford rapidly approaches the 1 million barrels-per-day mark for crude oil production, a 2010 petition by an environmental group to list the spot-tailed earless lizard as a federally protected species continues hanging in the balance.
U.S. Fish and Wildlife in 2011 said listing the spot-tailed earless lizard as endangered or threatened may be warranted. It's the first step in what can be a years-long process to list a species — but it doesn't mean that the lizard ultimately will receive any kind of listing to try to ensure its survival.
“Basically, the proverbial you-know-what is going to hit the fan if they propose to list it,” said Melinda Taylor, executive director of the Center for Global Energy, International Arbitration and Environmental Law at the University of Texas at Austin School of Law.
“The oil and gas industry is pulling out all the stops to try to stop listings. If it's listed, it will be just the beginning of the controversy.”
Much of the public attention to potential endangered species in Texas has zeroed in on a bird — the lesser prairie chicken. Its habitat includes West Texas' Permian Basin, the nation's largest oil and gas field.
Industry and agencies in five states worked for years to set aside hundreds of thousands of acres of ranchland for the lesser prairie chicken, a colorful grassland grouse.
It was an unprecedented effort to try to protect both the species and energy development.
Nearly 25,000 comments were submitted to Fish and Wildlife about the lesser prairie chicken, which was listed this year as threatened.
By comparison, the spot-tailed earless lizard has gone largely unnoticed.
In 2011, during the comment period, the service received 15 letters — including one letter submitted twice — about the lizard.
“It's been something of a sleeping issue,” said Austin attorney Alan Glen, who specializes in environmental law. “People have not been focused on it, but the economics are enormous. It would be as big a deal as the prairie chicken. The concern is that at some point the Fish and Wildlife Service could list it as threatened or endangered. It clearly would conflict with the Eagle Ford Shale.”
The first problem, though, is finding it.
Basic questions remain unanswered. Where is it? What happened to it? Why did it mostly vanish?
“It's really difficult to get any information on this thing,” said Mike Duran of the Nature Conservancy in Corpus Christi. “We just don't know anything about it. We don't even know specifically what it eats.”
Fire ants vs. lizards
There are two subspecies of spot-tailed earless lizard separated by the Balcones Escarpment, a geologic fault zone in Central Texas.
The southern spot-tailed earless lizard — Holbrookia lacerata subcaudalis — was historically in South Texas and Mexico while the northern lizard — Holbrookia lacerata lacerate — was spotted throughout the Edwards Plateau to the north.
The lizard is considered wary and quick to retreat. It likes flat, open areas of loamy soil and combinations of loam and clay. And it's not really earless — it just has no external ear openings.
Duran said the northern subspecies has been found in several counties, including at a goat farm in Tom Green County.
“Every time I've ever been there I've found them,” Duran said. “As far as I can tell, grazing has little or no affect at all. A lot of the farmers will be glad to hear that.”
The South Texas lizard is more elusive.
Scientists from Texas State University and Texas A&M University wrote in 2011 that a review of field work, habitat changes and museum records appears to support the “speculation of a decline in abundance.”
“In the last 11 years, we did not detect the lizard during our field work,” their summary said.
Everyone was starting to think the southern subspecies might have vanished altogether when a mechanic at Del Rio's Laughlin AFB snapped a photo a few years ago.
Unsure of what it was, the mechanic emailed the photo to a horned lizard specialist at the Texas Parks and Wildlife Department, who recognized it as a spot-tailed earless lizard and emailed Duran.
When Duran visited the base, it didn't take long for him to see several spot-tailed earless lizards scurrying.
“This used to be farmland. Then at some point the Air Force base took it over and began mowing around the runways mainly to discourage birds,” Duran said. “It keeps the area open the way these lizards like it. Returning all this grass to it replenishes the topsoil. It's totally inadvertent and by accident, but it definitely made a good habitat for these lizards.”
The mowing also created a habitat that's now rare in South Texas.
It's hard to imagine now, but the region once was a savannah — wide swaths of short-grass prairie. Cattle grazing and the advance of mesquite have transformed much of it to a thorny brush land. Widespread planting of exotic grasses as forage have pushed out native grasses.
There have been other changes.
The invasion of imported red fire ants — a multistate scourge to wildlife, livestock and people — likely harmed the spot-tailed earless lizards. Fire ants attack en masse and are known to kill quail, deer, songbirds, horn toads and other lizards.
Fish and Wildlife cited predation by fire ants as the reason the spot-tailed earless lizard could warrant endangered or threatened status.
Letters from state agencies and the industry say there's no evidence to prove that fire ants are a threat, though the state already is fighting the fire ant problem.
“Even if scientists were able to validate this threat, federal action would be superfluous as Texas is already addressing imported fire ant issues,” Texas Comptroller Susan Combs in a July 2011 letter to Fish and Wildlife.
Duran said there likely are other pockets in South Texas where the southern spot-tailed earless lizard survives.
The Texas Comptroller of Public Accounts tracks declining species and in June awarded a $233,531 grant to the University of Texas at Austin to study the lizard. As part of that grant, Duran next spring will start doing field work.
Scientists — and volunteers who don't mind hot weather, walking through tough terrain and possibly donning snake chaps — will go to areas where the lizard was seen historically, as well as areas with the kind of habitat that's suitable for the lizard.
Research is in such an early stage that Duran said that while most people would assume oil and gas development would harm the species, that's not at all clear.
“We don't know for sure that oil exploration has any impact at all,” Duran said. “There's even the possibility that it could be beneficial in a way. They like open areas and bare ground. They like to sit in the middle of a dirt road.”
Oil trucks driving by could run over a sunning lizard, Duran said, but it's all hypothesis.
“Whether that impacts populations as a whole — that's the question,” he said.
The Fish and Wildlife Service has a range of options — not to list the species, to do new research, propose it as an endangered species or say that it's warranted, but that other species have a higher priority. It could stay on a candidate list for years.
Fish and Wildlife calls its status review a 12-month finding, which has come and gone.
Lesli Gray, a spokeswoman with the Fish and Wildlife Service, said the agency doesn't have a timeline for the 12-month finding for the spot-tailed earless lizard. It's not included on the agency's work plan of species that will be considered by 2018.
Duran does not think it's likely the lizard would be listed ultimately because of its large range.
“Logistically and politically, it would just be impossible to list something like that,” he said.
If the southern spot-tailed earless lizard is found and appears imperiled, Duncan said a more likely route would be a voluntary conservation agreement, similar to those created for the dune sagebrush lizard.
Last week, a federal judge dismissed a lawsuit filed by environmental groups and ruled the Fish and Wildlife Service acted lawfully in 2012 when it declined to protect the dunes sagebrush lizard.
The service instead allows voluntary conservation agreements, which aim to protect habitat while allowing continued oil and gas development.
Texas Railroad Commissioner David Porter, one of three elected commissioners at the agency that oversees the oil and gas industry, in late 2012 issued a news release that said the Endangered Species Act was being used as a weapon against the oil and gas industry by the Obama administration.
Porter called the Santa Fe, New Mexico-based WildEarth Guardians, which filed the petition to list the spot-tailed earless lizard, a radical environmental group.
“Not coincidentally, the range of this particular lizard includes portions of the Eagle Ford Shale in Texas, which is emerging as one of the top oil and gas producing regions in the country,” Porter said.
Porter said that groups like WildEarth try to overwhelm the Fish and Wildlife Service with petitions, without regard to the economy.
Several state agencies, industry groups and the U.S. Navy, which has bases in Kingsville and Corpus Christi, also wrote to Fish and Wildlife to discourage the agency from listing the species.
WildEarth Guardians in 25 years has petitioned to list around 750 species. Taylor Jones, an endangered species advocate with the group, said the petition was filed because the spot-tailed earless lizard is in dire straits.
“It used to be very prominent in South Texas and it looked like the population was crashing,” Jones said. “It's oftentimes these seemingly less charismatic, less well-known species that do fly under the radar and get less attention. They're just as important to preserve biodiversity.”
At an oil and gas conference in San Antonio in August, Sean Kyle of the Texas Parks and Wildlife department told industry executives they should get familiar with databases that list declining species.
The comptroller's office has a website that tracks 132 species that are under some sort of federal scrutiny. The spot-tailed earless lizard is one of 58 that is under review for a 12-month finding with Fish and Wildlife.
“You guys really need to look at your potential risk,” Kyle said.