SANTA FE — The region's most controversial reptile lost a vote Monday at Capitol, but the decision by New Mexico legislators may not carry any weight.
Ten members of the natural resources committee voted to publicly oppose listing the dunes sagebrush lizard as an endangered species. They will send a letter expressing their sentiment to Daniel Ashe, director of the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service.
Four Democrats on the committee dissented. They included two from southern New Mexico, Rep. Joseph Cervantes of Las Cruces and Sen. Mary Jane Garcia of Dona Ana. Their objection will be added to the end of the letter.
Ashe is to decide by Dec. 14 whether the dunes sagebrush lizard should be designated as an endangered species.
State Rep. Paul Bandy, R-Aztec, led the opposition to federal protection for the reptile.
He said such a move could hurt businesses, especially ranchers and oil and gas producers.
The dunes sagebrush lizard is found in a total of eight counties in the oil-producing Permian Basin. Four are in southeastern New Mexico and the others are in West Texas.
Bandy's letter, endorsed by a mix of Republicans, Democrats and an independent, asks that the decision on the lizard be delayed for a year.
Citing no sources or scientific data, Bandy wrote that listing the lizard as endangered would "delay or even curtail livestock grazing and oil and gas development in southeastern New Mexico..."
State Rep. Brian Egolf, D-Santa Fe, left the meeting before the vote, but he criticized Bandy's letter on his way out the door.
"Typical sky is falling, scared of science, nonsensical position," Egolf said.
Conservationists say that the dunes sagebrush lizard occupies about 1 percent of the Permian Basin, and listing it would have minimal or no effect on the economy. But the oil and gas industry has closed ranks and is unanimous in opposing federal protection for the reptile.
Rep. Andy Nunez, an independent from Hatch, voted against protection for the lizard. One reason was his distrust for a particular conservation group, the Center for Biological Diversity.
"Whatever they say, I don't believe," Nunez said.
Two Democrats, Sen. George Munoz of Gallup and Rep. Thomas Garcia of Ocate, stood with Republicans and Nunez in opposing the reptile.
The dunes sagebrush lizard is about the size of a human hand. It can live only in dunes with the shrub shinnery oak.
Bandy in a September special session sponsored a memorial calling for a delay in listing the lizard. Democrats killed that proposal in another committee, but he rebounded for a smaller win Monday.
How much weight Bandy's letter will carry is anybody's guess.
The federal government's deadline for public comments on the lizard expired in May.
As for a delay in the listing, Tom Buckley of the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service in Albuquerque, said that would be unlikely.
A decision on whether to list the lizard as endangered would be postponed only if experts were stalemated on scientific data, Buckley said.
The dunes sagebrush lizard exists in the New Mexico counties of Chaves, Eddy, Lea and Roosevelt. It also is found in Andrews, Gaines, Ward and Winkler counties in Texas.
Santa Fe Bureau Chief Milan Simonich can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or 505-820-6898. His blog is at nmcapitolreport.com.