CARLSBAD, N.M. (AP) — Federal wildlife managers are considering offering permits to landowners in the Permian Basin that environmentalists say could further compromise habitat for a rare lizard found only in parts of southeastern New Mexico and West Texas.

The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service will be accepting comments on the proposal through Dec. 21. The permits would be available to landowners who are participating in candidate conservation agreements with the federal government. The permits would cover situations when dunes sagebrush lizards are harmed or killed during oil and gas operations, sand mining, renewable energy development, agriculture or construction activities.

A candidate for federal protection for nearly two decades, the lizard has yet to be added to the list of threatened and endangered species. It dwells in sand dunes and among shinnery oak. It’s active between April and October.

Federal biologists have said the primary threat to the lizard is the loss of habitat associated with oil and gas development and sand mining. As a result, the reptile’s habitat has become more fragmented.

The federal government has leaned on conservation agreements—which call on landowners to take actions to protect the lizard and its home range—as a way to put off a listing that would restrict access to large swaths of the land in one of the nation’s most active shale plays.

The permit proposal would allow development on 54 square miles (140 square kilometers) across six counties in West Texas, assuring landowners they would not be subjected to federal restrictions whether the species is listed or not, in exchange for following numerous conservation requirements. Permits would remain in effect for up to 23 years or until surrendered by the permittees.

Michael Robinson with the Center for Biological Diversity said the move is concerning because the conservation agreements are discretionary while habitat destruction is permanent. “The assurances are not very assuring,” Robinson told the Carlsbad Current-Argus. “This will enable the continued destruction and fragmentation of the lizard’s habitat which is driving its extinction. Robinson said a federal listing for the dunes sagebrush lizard as endangered is necessary to prevent extinction.

Supporters of the oil and gas industry touted the permit proposal as a way to allow for continued economic development while balancing environmental issues. Republican U.S. Sen. Ted Cruz of Texas said in a statement that the move would help keep decision making at the state level and avoid federal intervention. He noted that very few of the species listed as threatened or endangered have ever recovered. “Listing the lizard under the Endangered Species Act would be devastating for private property owners across West Texas, the Texas economy, and the energy security of the nation while also failing to achieve the desired outcome of both protecting and recovering wildlife,” he said.

Written by