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Off-road enthusiasts and U.S. Fish and Wildlife

June 20, 2002

Service square off over flat-tailed horned lizard

By LAURA MITCHELL

Staff Writer

The debate over listing the flat-tailed horned lizard might be more about who has the best lawyers than who has the best science.

Off-road enthusiasts and environmentalists addressed representatives from the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service on its proposal to list the flat-tailed horned lizard as a threatened species under the Endangered Species Act at two public hearings Wednesday in El Centro.

The listing could close desert areas to off-road vehicles. A significant portion of the lizard's habitat, more than 100,000 acres, is in Imperial County.

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"There are two sides of the debate and potentially two plaintiffs," said David Hubbard, attorney for a number of off-road groups.

Wednesday's hearings were the result of a lawsuit by the Defenders of Wildlife. The service proposed to list the lizard in 1993 but four years later withdrew the proposal when it reached a conservation agreement with government agencies that own land in the lizard's primary habitat.

Defenders of Wildlife sued the service and won on appeal. The Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals ordered the service to reinstate the 1993 proposal to list.

San Diego-based Desert Protective Council spokeswoman Janet Anderson said the conservation agreement is not strongly enforced in Borrego Springs, where she has a home. The lizard needs to be listed to be protected.

The health of the lizard is indicative of the health of the desert ecosystem, Anderson said.

The service describes the lizard as small and pale gray to light rusty brown in color with a flat body and dagger-like head spines. The lizard feeds primarily on ants and other insects.

The lizard lives mainly in desert flat lands including the Ocotillo Wells vehicle recreation area. Other areas include parts of the Anza Borrego state park, parts of the Coachella Valley and large parts of the Imperial Valley.

Hubbard, who represents the American Sand Association, the San Diego Off Road Coalition and the Off Road Business Association, said an April study by the U.S. Bureau of Land Management states "no consistent association between vehicle impacts and lizards was found."

The study also concludes flat-tailed horned lizard detection rates in 2001 were not significantly different from those in 1979.

Listing the flat-tailed horned lizard would be the path of least resistance for the service, but following the path of least resistance is the last thing it should do, Hubbard said.

Those who represent off-road interests will make sure the service uses the best available science, he said.

After the hearing, Pete Sorensen, biologist with the service in Carlsbad, said science, by definition, isn't necessarily exact.

Service biologist Sandy Vissman said most challenges the service gets are over procedures or arguments over science.

The service is under court order to make its decision on listing the flat-tailed horned lizard by Dec. 12.

Written comments will be accepted until 5 p.m. July 29. Comments and information must be submitted in writing to: Field Supervisor, Carlsbad Fish and Wildlife Office, 2730 Loker Avenue West, Carlsbad, CA 92008. Questions should be directed to Sandy Vissman, Douglas Krofta or Jane Hendron in the Carlsbad office at 431-9440.

>> Staff Writer Laura Mitchell can be reached at 337-3452 or lauramitchell9@yahoo.com

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