03:37 PM

For Immediate Release

Sand Mining Destroying Habitat of Rare Lizard in the Permian Basin

WASHINGTON Defenders of Wildlife issued a new analysis today on the loss of habitat for the dunes sagebrush lizard in West Texas. Using satellite data and cloud computing, Defenders’ Center for Conservation Innovation found nine operations mining sand to use in oil and gas development, some of which are damaging the lizard’s habitat.

Sand mines on the Texas landscape are appearing suddenly and are expanding quickly; 16 sand mines are operating or planning to operate in the West Texas counties of Crane, Ector, Ward and Winkler. According to Defenders’ satellite image analysis, the sand mines disturbed 292 acres of lizard habitat and surrounding buffers between February and August of this year. Based on lease data for the sand mines, eventually over 23,000 acres − nearly 10 percent − of the lizard’s habitat and adjacent buffer zones in Texas could be disturbed or destroyed by the sand mining operations.

Ya-Wei Li, vice president of endangered species conservation and director of the Center for Conservation Innovation for Defenders of Wildlife, said:

"Our analysis of satellite images shows that the rush on frac sand mining in the Permian Basin threatens to push the dunes sagebrush lizard towards extinction. Unfortunately, if the sand mining companies do not refrain from developing in lizard habitat, we might see the extirpation of the Texas populations in the near future.

"Each month, we will publicly distribute the latest satellite images of all the sand mines. If a mining company destroys lizard populations, the whole world will see it unfold."


The dunes sagebrush lizard is a small brown reptile that inhabits a tiny sliver of southeast New Mexico and West Texas. The species relies on shinnery oak for shade and buries itself in the sand to regulate its body temperature. It is primarily active between April and October and feeds on ants, crickets, spiders and other small insects.

Long harmed by habitat loss from energy development, the dunes sagebrush lizard is already one of the most imperiled lizards in the United States. Part of its habitat is in the Permian Basin, which produces more than 1 million barrels of oil a day, or about 20 percent of all production in the lower 48 U.S. states. Now the species faces a new and potentially bigger threat from sand mining – used for oil and gas fracking − in its already limited habitat in Texas.

In August, using a computer algorithm we developed to track habitat loss for the lesser-prairie chicken, Defenders’ Center for Conservation Innovation detected nine new sand mining operations in or adjacent to lizard habitat in West Texas. Sand mining removes large swaths of habitat − including digging 80-foot-deep holes − potentially making it even more disruptive to wildlife than oil and gas development. The mines broke ground earlier this year and, according to Defenders’ satellite image analysis, have already disturbed 292 acres of lizard habitat and surrounding buffers.

Despite the rarity of the dunes sagebrush lizard and threats to its habitat, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service declined to list the species under the Endangered Species Act in 2012. That decision was based partly on a voluntary conservation plan for the species finalized just months earlier between the FWS and the Texas Comptroller of Public Accounts to address various land uses in the region, including oil and gas development. Under the plan, participants agree to avoid and minimize certain activities that harm the lizard and restore its habitat. But the Texas Conservation Plan has not always lived up to its promises. For a full timeline of ESA and dunes sagebrush lizard events, click here.

In 2013, Defenders used satellite images to uncover unauthorized and unreported oil and gas development. In 2016, the comptroller fired the organization tasked with implementing the plan for failing to perform any of the habitat restoration work it agreed to do in 2013 and 2014. The comptroller reported that, as of September 2016, 2,378 acres of the lizard’s 248,686 acres of habitat and surrounding buffers had been disturbed under the Texas Conservation Plan.

Now with new threats from sand mining, an additional 23,000 acres − nearly 10 percent − of the lizard’s habitat and adjacent buffer zones in Texas could be destroyed. Fortunately, at least two companies, including Vista Sand and Black Mountain, have voluntarily modified their plans to minimize harm to the species at the request of the Texas Comptroller’s office, according to an August 10th letter sent to the FWS.

But some other companies have not cooperated. Houston-based Hi-Crush Partners LP and Atlas Sand Company, for example, own leases that cover 11 percent (6,742 acres) of the highest quality lizard habitat in Texas, according to the August 10th letter. The letter explains that neither company has agreed to modify its operations.

At Defenders’ Center for Conservation Innovation, we are using satellite images to track the footprint of all sand mines within or adjacent to lizard habitat. To see monthly images of the sand mines to date, follow this link to our interactive Story Map. For the full analysis and to reach the Story Map go here: https://cci-dev.org/analysis/DSL_sand_mines/.

The Center for Conservation Innovation at Defenders of Wildlife has been developing methods to use the increasing abundance of remote sensing data to inform and improve imperiled species conservation. Our goal is to develop a set of generalized methods that we can apply in a variety of landscapes to detect land cover changes. There are many ways to use these tools for conservation, and we will continue to develop and use them for other species.

Defenders of Wildlife is dedicated to the protection of all native animals and plants in their natural communities. With over 1.8 million members and activists, Defenders of Wildlife is a leading advocate for innovative solutions to safeguard our wildlife heritage for generations to come. For more information, visit Newsroom.Defenders.org and follow us on Twitter @DefendersNews.