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SAN ANTONIO (Reuters) - U.S. officials ruled on Wednesday that a tiny lizard would be kept off the endangered species list after agreements with Texas and New Mexico landowners intended to protect its habitat and preserve oil and gas production in the region.
The U.S. Fish and Wildlife ruling that the 3-inch-long (7.5-cm) dunes sagebrush lizard is not endangered ends years of effort by landowners in the region including oil companies and ranchers to keep it off the list.
Oil and gas companies said endangered species protections would eliminate drilling across 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.
Texas state Comptroller Susan Combs, who helped put the agreement together, said the decision proved people did not have to choose between the environment and the economy.
"This is a major victory for Texas jobs and the nation's energy economy," Combs said.
Owners of some 600,000 acres in Texas and New Mexico, which covers about 88 percent of the lizard's habitat, have agreed to take steps to remove threats to the lizard by removing farm roads, water lines, roadside drainage ditches and other infrastructure items.
Landowners also agreed to refrain from drilling and surveying for oil, natural gas, and other resources in some areas for the rights to drill in other parts of the region.
"My goal is to implement a 21st Century conservation agenda, and when I see 600,000 acres plus, and I see most of the lizard habitat protected, that is a major victory for conservation," U.S. Interior Secretary Ken Salazar said.
"This is the right thing for conservation, and the right thing for the economy," Salazar said.
Vibrations from oil drilling and heavy oilfield trucks and herbicide use by ranchers are among the threats facing the lizard, which lives in what is called the shinnery oak, the short, stubby shrubs that dot the sandy southwestern desert.
"An endangered species listing for this lizard would have had devastating consequences for Texas jobs and for the nation's energy security," U.S. Senator John Cornyn said.
Cornyn, a Texas Republican, said 27,000 oilfield jobs in Texas would have been lost had the lizard been listed as endangered. A pipeline planned to bring water to drought-stricken Midland, Texas, also would have been halted, he said.
Environmental groups had mixed reactions to the decision.
"We hope the secretary and the Fish and Wildlife Service weren't badgered into withdrawing the listing proposal by the oil and gas industry, which has declared a jihad against a 3-inch lizard," said Mark Salvo, whose New Mexico-based Wild Earth Guardians conservation group sought to put the species on the endangered species list.
Others wildlife groups supported the decision not to list the lizard species as endangered.
"Farmers, ranchers, and landowners are essential allies in the effort to ensure that as our nation grows, we still have abundant wildlife populations to enjoy," said David Festa, vice president of the Environmental Defense Fund.
"Give them the tools and incentives, like candidate conservation agreements, and they will provide a well-managed habitat at the scale which is needed today."
U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service Director Dan Ashe said the dunes sagebrush lizard was not in danger of extinction and not likely to become endangered in the near future, but his office would keep a close eye on its progress under the agreement.
Editing by David Bailey and Peter Cooney