Environmental groups are suing the Trump administration to secure federal protections for a reptile that makes its home among the shinnery oak sand dunes in West Texas and Southeast New Mexico.
The Center for Biological Diversity and Defenders of Wildlife filed the lawsuit against the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service in federal district court Tuesday. They want the agency to add the dunes sagebrush lizard to the endangered species list because oil and gas drilling in the Permian Basin threaten its habitat.
"And in addition, there's frac sand mining," said Michael Robinson, a senior conservation advocate at the Center for Biological Diversity. He says the process involves the "extraction of the sand in the dunes that the lizard skitters over for use elsewhere in fracking."
The low, shrubby shinnery oaks are also being cleared to make way for the oil and gas boom.
Robinson says his group first petitioned U.S. Fish and Wildlife to protect the dunes sagebrush lizard in 2002.
"But there's been constant delay because of political machinations by the oil and gas industry," he said. "So, now we're filing a lawsuit to follow up on our latest scientific petition we submitted last year in May."
The agency had 90 days to determine whether that petition showed a need to list the species as threatened or endangered, but federal officials did not act in that timeframe.
Luke Metzger, who heads the statewide advocacy group Environment Texas, says he applauds these conservation groups for taking legal action to protect the dunes sagebrush lizard. He says this lawsuit is part of a growing trend of groups like his needing to rely on the courts for environmental protections.
Metzger says 10 to 15 years ago, there was more support – even among Republican leaders – to protect the environment.
"Whether it was Gov. [Rick] Perry expanding renewable energy development, President Bush setting aside parts of our oceans as a national monument – there was, I think, much more bipartisan action and support for environmental protection," Metzger said.
He says that's changed under both the Trump administration and Gov. Greg Abbott.
"We've seen new attacks on the environment, including rolling back of existing environmental laws," Metzger said. "So really the courts are one of the last bastions where we can go to make sure that wildlife are protected, and that our air and water are preserved and kept clean."
A spokesperson for U.S. Fish and Wildlife said the agency could not comment, citing pending litigation.
Just last year, Texas Comptroller Glenn Hegar ended a voluntary program for oil and gas companies to limit their impact on the dunes sagebrush lizard that his predecessor Susan Combs launched. Hegar's office said the program ultimately did not protect the species. It released a new state plan earlier this year that U.S. Fish and Wildlife still needs to approve. If approved, it would be opened up for public comment.