The Dune Sagebrush Lizard and the Permian Basin Oil Play
The dune sagebrush lizard (Sceloporus arenicolus) typifies one of the most difficult issues regarding biodiversity: establishing a balance between the economic and environmental protection. Even as more nations and international agencies join the initiative of preserving several million species on earth, there still lies some indifference in the heart of critics, who believe firmly in the preservation of favoured races in the struggle for life (Spencer). With a growing population of over seven billionwith seven billion different needs and wantsit can be humorously argued that all species that are incapable of speaking for themselves are ultimately endangered. The emergence of the homo sapiens was the emergence of a threat.
The International Union for Conservation of Nature (IUCN) Red List of Threatened Animals in its 2008 report estimated that a quarter of all known mammals were at risk of becoming extinct. The Red List employs criteria such as rate of decline, population size, area of geographic distribution, and degree of population and distribution fragmentation (IUCN) to categorize all supposedly threatened species into nine groups: extinct; extinct in the wild; critically endangered; endangered; vulnerable; near threatened; least concern, data deficient; not evaluated (IUCN). The IUCN defines endangered species as those facing a high risk of extinction in the wild; this means that these species of organism in a short duration of time, if proper steps are not taken, would become extinct in their natural habitat. However, they might survive in captivity if successfully preserved.
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The current conservation status of the lizard is designated as vulnerable; it has a high risk of endangerment in the wild, unless the circumstances threatening its survival and reproduction are improved (IUCN). The IUCN arguably offers the most comprehensive evaluation on the conservation status of plant and animal species, but it should be, however, noted that most of its previous data are carried over to the next list; not all species are periodically reassessed. The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service (FWS) proposed in 2011 that the dune sagebrush lizard should be listed on the Endangered List for the protection by the Endangered Species Act (ESA) on the account that the lizard was at risk for extinction. The criteria that differentiate between endangered and vulnerable species often overlap; however, the available empirical data and peer-reviewed evaluation (Best et al. 2011) suggest that the 3-inch long (7.5 cm) dune sagebrush lizard is indeed endangered.
The lizards ability to survive in captivity is hindered by the high specificity of habitational conditions, where it can survive; these conditions are almost not possible to be artificially reproduced. The dune sagebrush belongs to a family of lizards with a very small geographical range, which is native only to the United States, specifically the New Mexico and Texas regions. The existence of this lizard is coupled with the existence of its primary habitatthe shinnery oak. The lizard buries itself in the ground to regulate temperature, and the size of the sand particle must be exact enough to ensure that the lizard can breathe. A popular online encyclopedia for animal facts, PawNation, describes the habitat requirement for the dune sagebrush as:
When it comes to habitat, the dunes sagebrush lizard is a very, very particular creature. These yellow-eyed, striped lizards spend the bulk of their time tucked away under shinnery oak trees or within dunes. As for dunes, they also have very detailed requirementsthe sand must be of moderate size, and cannot be especially soft or rough in texture. When dunes sagebrush lizards look for places to retreat, they typically opt for burrows, loose sand or dense piles of foliage. (Wolf)
In its natural form, the oak is about one to two feet tall, but it possesses a remarkable underground root system. It is generally believed that ninety percent of this shrub lies beneath the ground. It begins to bud in late March, while its flowers blossom in April and May. This beautiful shrub provides both food and protection to wildlife species. The oak forest itself is a part of a larger habitat, namely the sand shinnery, which is codominated by oak shrubs and mid and tall grasses (Peterson and Boyd) and home to other species like the lesser prairie chicken. Most of the shinnery oak occurs on private lands, and through the years, it has been subjected to the destruction from activities like livestock grazing and hunting. The widespread use of herbicides and mechanical bush clearing has reduced the lizards habitat by almost 40 percent (Lininger, Bradley, and McKinnon).
The feared extinction of the dune sagebrush lizard is multifaceted; it is as a result of several reasons, and the exploration and extraction of oil is also implicated. In 2004, Davies, Margules, and Lawrence highlighted the link between a high specificity in the ecological requirement of a species and its vulnerability to extinction; the dune sagebrush lizard is endangered, and it lives in a persistently vanishing habitat, but how much of this endangerment is as a direct result of the heavy presence of the oil and gas industry in these areas is questionable. The lizard is intolerable to climate changes and soil calcium carbonate level; thus, even a total shut down of the Permian basin does not guarantees its immunity to extinction. Therefore, it is nonetheless essential to find measures to preserve the existence of these species.
Texas is one of the leading states that drive the nations agricultural sector and economy at large. It is a key player in the oil and gas industry, with vast mineral resources spread extensively throughout the entire state; if it annexed as a nation, it would persistently rank as one of the top ten oil producers in the world. There are approximately 200 countries which produce petroleum, and every other county has one form of mineral or the other. The three major areas in the state of Texas that produce petroleum are the Texas Gulf Coast region, the East Texas Oil Field, centered in Kilgore, and the Permian Basin in western Texas. The Permian Basin and the Gulf Coast are home to the counties that are leaders in terms of gas production. In 2007, reports by the Texas Railroad commission indicated that the basin alone accounted for about 68 percent of the crude oil produced in Texas. Sites on Texas, an online source for demographic reports, maps, charts and date estimated that about 394,229 people lived in the area. A renowned economist, Karr Ingham, in his 2008 study calculated the economic index of Texas and stated that
The general economy of the region (Permian Basin) is arguably more directly connected to the oil & gas industry than any other region in Texas (perhaps even the entire US) to its base industry and economy. The general economy of the region is hyper-sensitive to trends and movements within the regional oil & gas economy; when the industry grows and expands, the overall regional economy does the same, and when the industry contracts, the regional economy decline without fail...
The region itself has one of the least unemployment rates in the state (and arguably in the country), and this is accountable to its oil and gas sector. Ingham further comments in his report that the oil and gas business has clearly been good to the regional economy in recent years...The regional petroleum industry is not simply connected to the petroleum industry; in many respects, the regional petroleum industry is the regional economy. It is against this economic background that proponents of not enlisting the dune sagebrush lizard on the endangered list oppose protecting the status of the lizard. However, the habitat of the dune sagebrush lizard is less than 2 percent (approximately 749,000 acres) of the Permian Basins acreage (about 39.6 million acres) (Lininger, Bradley, and McKinnon). Therefore, claims that enlisting the lizard to protect its critical habitat would shut down the Permian basin are exaggerated.
The Permian Basin produced more than 270 million barrels of oil in 2010 and more than 280 million barrels in 2011. The Permian Basin has produced over 29 billion barrels of oil and 75 trillion cubic feet of gas and it is estimated by industry experts to contain recoverable oil and natural gas resources exceeding what has been produced over the last 90 years (RRC, 2013). The way how the oil exploration and extraction impacts the lizard is still being studied by ecologists and environmentalists. However, speculations suggest that the extraction of oil from the Permian Basin causes a severe fragmentation of the sand shinnery habitat; to extract oil from the basin, bulldozers are used to flatten the sand, then calicheunderground calcium carbonate rock, which in high levels is unfavorable for both the lizard and its habitatis mined and smoothed out over the surface. This distorts the natural sand requirement for the lizard; other results of the oil exploration like clearing of fields, roads and installed pipelines also reduces the habitat of the lizard and can accidentally harm the lizard directly.
The impact that listing the lizard as an endangered species would have on the economy depends on what the listing entails and its aftermath; the degree of the post-listing impact cannot be ascertained in simple terms. Nonetheless, current speculations are overly exaggerated, and this is because the limited information available to the public infers that the lizards habitat exist throughout the expanse of the Permian Basin, therefore, it is commonly assumed that enlisting the lizard means closing up the entire Permian basin from the oil and gas exploration. However, if it is true that the lizard cannot thrive everywherenot even on every parcel of land on the Permian basinit means that any action by conservation extremists that totally restricts the land use across the entire Permian basin, on both proven and unproven habitat would be severely extravagant.
Moreover, the Endangered Species Act is associated with a considerably distasteful history, which speculated that over 5000 jobs were lost due to the enlisting of Delta Smelt as endangered. Both the lizard and the economy can coexist; in order to achieve this, the total expanse of the lizards habitat must be estimated, and it must be communicated to the Texan public in clear terms; if the habitat estimate is feasible and does not violate a common interest, there must be no future expansion of the designated habitat. Most people want these species to live, it is hard to imagine people, who derive joy from seeing species that define the diversity as living beings go extinct. As much as people want to preserve the wildlife, they hope it would not be at the expense of their own lives. It is again, like Spencer suggested, a progressive adaption to the local environment, namely natural selection. This is, however, a simplified approach to a very complex problem and might, thus, require more than stated.
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Current conservation efforts ensure that oil explorers and private land owners are notified that all or portions of the lease may contain suitable or occupied habitat, thus operators are required to survey for lizard presence before drilling (Oil & Gas DSL report). New Mexico already has the lizard listed as endangered, but controversies still lie in enforcing the use of private lands for public purposes. The preservation of wildlife provides results that benefit a human life, but the brunt of the work should be spread out across, if the burden of conservation is imposed on private land owners, who unfortunately own lands with species that prone to be extinct, whereas it can have a devastating indifference of involved persons. The preservation of the American Bald Eagle is one of the most remarkable successes of the Endangered Species Act.
It is tempting to view the Lizard-Permian power tussle as a moral one; every species in existence should have an equal claim to the ownership of earth. This is beautiful in theory, but it would not help in solving the problem. Moral means different things to different people; some might consider it highly immoral to make people preserve these species against their own will. It is also very easy to discard a call for the environmental conservation as a political move by extremists to downplay the power of the state; however, it is best to view the need to preserve other species as wisdom based on the perspective. What if the dune sagebrush has some unknown potential to be of medicinal value to a man? The existence of other species makes human beings have a balanced and healthy ecosystem. Current conservation efforts in the Permian basin are voluntary as opposed to mandatory and are not effective enough in the long run to preserve an endangered species. However, only a transparent and evidence-backed Endangered Species Listwith an approach that encourages incentives against the current obligation imposed on land ownerswould curtail unintentional harm to these species. Every species, no matter how unnecessary they seem, has a right to exist, if the threat to its existence can be avoided.