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Flat-tailed horned lizard gets boost from Arizona judge [Updated]

November 4, 2009 |  5:55 pm
In the latest chapter in a 16-year legal battle to keep the flat-tailed horned lizard safe from urban encroachment, a federal court judge in Arizona has reinstated a 1993 proposal to list the creature as a threatened species.

U.S. District Judge Neil V. Wake’s ruling follows a recent U.S. 9th Circuit Court of Appeals order that the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service reconsider its earlier decision to deny the lizard protection under the Endangered Species Act. That decision rejected a Bush administration policy that environmentalists complained favored development at the expense of the lizard and many plants and animals across the nation.

Since 1993, the agency has withdrawn three proposals to list the lizard on the grounds it was hard to find and, therefore, difficult to classify as threatened. Each withdrawal was successfully challenged in court by conservation groups, including the Center for Biological Diversity, Defenders of Wildlife, the Sierra Club and the Horned Lizard Conservation Society.

In the meantime, the lizard’s population has continued to decline in Arizona, California and Baja California largely because its habitats of gravel pans and dunes have been taken over by farming, housing, off-road vehicles, geothermal leases, gravel pits, golf courses, military exercises and border fences between the United States and Mexico.

The Department of the Interior is expected to make a final decision about the status of the flat-tailed horned lizard by November 2010.

“The lizard is certainly as deserving of federal protection today as it was 16 years ago,” said attorney Bill Snape, who represented the Center for Biological Diversity in the matter. “Hopefully this is the final chapter in the lizard’s long and tortured legal history.”

The lizard — 3 1/2 inches long and a voracious consumer of harvester ants — once inhabited wide swaths of the Colorado and Sonoran deserts.

Listing the lizard as threatened could potentially affect the ongoing rush to build huge solar energy facilities across the desert flatlands of Southern California, said Allan Muth, a plaintiff in the lawsuit and director of the Boyd Deep Canyon Desert Research Center, south of Palm Desert.

“Amid all the applications being submitted to develop solar energy plants, it doesn’t look like things will get any better for the flat-tailed horned lizard,” Muth said. “If listing the lizard as a threatened species means people will take a little more time to think these things through, that’s a good thing.”

Anticipating a protection declaration, Stirling Energy Systems plans to mitigate the environmental impacts of its proposed Solar II facility on 6,500 acres of flat-tailed horned lizard habitat near the Imperial County city of El Centro by purchasing prime lizard habitat elsewhere and then donating it for conservation. [Updated at 7:51 p.m.: The name of that proposed facility was recently renamed Tessera Solar's Imperial Valley Solar Two by Stirling to reflect the name of its sister company.]

-- Louis Sahagun