WASHINGTON — Colorado could learn a lesson from how Texas dealt with the impending listing of the dune sagebrush lizard by protecting species habitat so the creature could co-exist with the region’s thriving oil and gas industry, says the state’s Comptroller Susan Combs.
The state essentially fought science with science, Combs told The Colorado Observer this week following the Conservation Leadership Council’s roundtable discussion in Washington on endangered species solutions.
Armed with $250,000 raised by the industry, 21 biologists were hired to survey the five counties believed to be the lizard’s habitat, and contrary to initial searches that found only three sites where the species survived, the new team of scientists discovered nearly 30 sites.
The state, industry, and private property owners worked together to create a counter-plan to the government’s listing proposal that would preserve the lizard’s habitat, a critical component environmentalists say are necessary to protect a species from becoming extinct.
Combs said the federal Fish and Wildlife Service was grateful for the assistance, and approved the plan which essentially prevented the endangered species law from shutting down an essential part of the state’s energy production.
“The science was the absolute essential underpinning,” Combs said. “Without the science, it would not have happened.”
“So when someone else can come up with the data that is credible, that is peer reviewed, that is a huge relief for them because they can say ‘Okay, we got the lizard taken care of, thank goodness,’” Combs said.
Former Interior Secretary Gale Norton says Colorado could follow a similar blueprint to prevent an endangered listing of the sage grouse, which if approved by the federal government would restrict the use of two million acres on the western slope.
However, what Colorado lacks in its situation is clear guidance from the federal government to an end game. In other words, if the critter is listed, what can the state do for the species that would eventually get it delisted?
“There are several things we can learn from Texas, bring everyone together and talk about who can contribute what to restore the species,” Norton said.
“But it’s hard to get some people to make all of the long-term commitments they need to make, if they don’t have some clarity about what’s going to be expected,” Norton said.
“Everybody has tried to make plans for how to keep the sage grouse from being listed — it’s been a constant battle back and forth to see if its going to be listed and what kinds of conservation plans are going to be enough. So having a system to provide some better understanding up front would be very helpful for the species as well as for those who are trying to make plans around it,” Norton said.
Rep. Scott Tipton, Colorado Republican, has expressed similar concerns during numerous congressional hearings, that once the grouse is listed and restrictions put in place on grazing or energy development, there is no guarantee the bird will ever be delisted even if the species is satisfactorily recovered.
“There are very few species that have ever been taken off the endangered species list, and most of those that have come off have either been because they decided it was a scientific mistake to put them on it in the first place, or because they are extinct,” Norton said.
“Only a handful of species have ever come off the list because they have actually recovered,” Norton said.
In Texas, the historic agreement uses a voluntary system that pays landowners to participate with a confidential system that prohibits Combs from revealing the specific areas on private land that are under protection.
To ensure compliance, state officials use a satellite system that literally gives them a bird’s eye view to ensure the habitat is not disturbed.
“It’s the only one like it in the country where we have this accountability,” Combs said. “We hope it works.”
Although federal scientists agreed the state’s actions would help recover the species, two Washington-based environmental groups are suing to block the plan saying that unless the landowner’s names and locations are made public, they have no confidence the lizard’s habitat will be protected.