Lizard Proposed for Endangered List, Wolverine, Tortoise Must Wait

WASHINGTON, DC, December 13, 2010 (ENS) – The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service today proposed to list the dunes sagebrush lizard as endangered under the Endangered Species Act. The Service has also determined that critical habitat for the dunes sagebrush lizard is “prudent,” but “not determinable” at this time.

But the wolverine and the Sonoran desert tortoise, two other species the Service also said warrant protection as endangered, were not proposed for listing. They were just added to the long list of more than 250 candidate species awaiting Endangered Species Act protection.

The dunes sagebrush lizard is camouflaged against the sandy soil of its habitat. (Photo by Mike Hill courtesy USFWS)

The dunes sagebrush lizard, Sceloporus graciosus arenicolus, faces “immediate and significant threats due to oil and gas activities, and herbicide treatments,” the Service said in its determination.

The small, light brown lizard is native to a small area of shinnery oak dunes in southeastern New Mexico and adjacent west Texas. Habitat loss and fragmentation due to oil and gas development is a measurable factor impacting the species due to the removal of shinnery oak and creation of roads and pads, pipelines, and power lines.

Shinnery oak through much of the lizard’s range was sprayed with herbicide to clear the land for cattle grazing, and the lizards are now extinct at these locations. Oil industry activities in the dunes allow mesquite to invade areas where shinnery oak and lizards once were found. While herbicide spraying has been outlawed in the lizard’s New Mexico habitat, development for the oil industry continues.

The Service is requesting comments or information from the public, other government agencies, Native American tribes, the scientific community, industry, or any other interested parties concerning this proposed rule by February 14, 2011. Submit comments at the federal rulemaking portal: http://www.regulations.gov. Search for docket FWS-R2-ES-2010-0041 and follow instructions for submitting comments.

Protection for two other species whose fate was determined today was determined to be “warrented” but “precluded.”

Wolverines found in the lower 48 states warrant protection under the Endangered Species Act, due to the impact of climate warming on their alpine habitat but a rulemaking to propose the species for protection is “precluded by the need to address other higher priority species,” the Service announced today.

Wolverine playing in the snow (Photo by Steve Kroschel USFWS Mountain Prairie Region)

“The threats to the wolverine are long-term due to the impacts of climate change on their denning habitat, especially important to assist the species in successfully reproducing,” said Steve Guertin, the Service’s director of the Mountain-Prairie Region. “If we work with state and other partners to help the wolverine now, we may be able to counter the long-term impacts of climate change on their habitat and keep them from becoming endangered.”

The wolverine, Gulo gulo, was likely extirpated from the lower 48 states during the early 20th century and has re-established populations by moving down from Canada into the North Cascades Range of Washington and the Northern Rocky Mountains of Montana, Idaho and Wyoming, the Service said in a statement.

Deep snow is required for successful wolverine reproduction because female wolverines dig elaborate dens in the snow to protect wolverine kits from predators as well as harsh alpine winters.

Data and analysis requested from the University of Washington Climate Impacts Group and the U.S. Forest Service Rocky Mountain Research Station predict a reduction of wolverines’ cold and snowy habitat of 63 percent by 2099.

The Service’s made its wolverine determination in response to a petition filed July 14, 2000, by the Biodiversity Legal Foundation, Predator Conservation Alliance, Defenders of Wildlife, Northwest Ecosystem Alliance, Friends of the Clearwater, and Superior Wilderness Action Network.

On March 11, 2008, the Service published a 12-month finding that listing of the wolverine in the contiguous United States was “not warranted.” In response to litigation, the Service agreed to revisit its previous determination and issue a new 12-month finding by December 1, 2010. This finding alters the previous determination.

Sonoran desert tortoise in Arizona’s Black Mountains (Photo by Audrey)

The Sonoran desert tortoise warrants listing under the Endangered Species Act, but protection is precluded due to higher priorities, Secretary of the Interior Ken Salazar decided today in a determination that will be published in the December 14 Federal Register.

Secretary Salazar made the listing determination in response to an October 2008 petition submitted by WildEarth Guardians and Western Watersheds Project, as well as multiple rounds of litigation to force the decision.

The groups have warned the federal government that this desert dwelling tortoise cannot afford further delay in its protection. Their petition showed that monitored tortoise populations have declined by more than 51 percent since the government originally refused it protection two decades ago.

“The Sonoran desert tortoise can survive heat, drought, scarce food and water, and a multitude of predators, but it cannot tolerate further delays in its protection,” said Mark Salvo of WildEarth Guardians. “Secretary Salazar needs to make up for lost time and actually grant these highly imperiled creatures much-needed federal safeguards.”

The Sonoran desert tortoise, Gopherus agassizii, lives in southwest Arizona and northern Mexico. In his finding, Salazar determined that Sonoran desert tortoises qualify for protection as a distinct population, different from other tortoises found in the Mojave Desert west of the Colorado River that were federally listed in 1990.

The Black Mountains north of Flagstaff, Arizona, are inhabited by the only Mojave desert tortoise population found east of the Colorado River. They were excluded from federal protection in 1990 when the Service opted to limit protection of Mojave desert tortoises to those found west of the Colorado River.

In his finding, Secretary Salazar determined that the Sonoran desert tortoises may be threatened by all five factors the agency uses in deciding whether a species qualifies for Endangered Species Act protection: 1) habitat loss and destruction; 2) overutilization; 3) disease or predation; 4) inadequate legal protections; and 5) other factors. Under the Act, the tortoise needs only to qualify under one of these factors to warrant listing.

The conservation groups point out that many of the 251 species on the candidate list have been there for a decade or more. Outside of Hawaii, Secretary Salazar has listed only four new U.S. species under the Act.

The Endangered Species Act makes it illegal to kill, harm or otherwise take a listed species, or to possess, import, export or engage in interstate or international commerce of a listed species without a permit from the Service. The Act requires all federal agencies to minimize the impact of their activities on listed species and directs the Service to work with federal agencies and other partners to develop and carry out recovery efforts for those species.

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