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Rare Lizard Finally Gets State Protection... For Now

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Squee! A flat-tailed horned lizard mugs for the camera | Photo: E/Flickr/Creative Commons License

A horned lizard whose decline has troubled conservationists for decades finally got a break today, when the California Fish and Game Commission agreed to consider adding it to the state's list of Endangered Species.

The flat-tailed horned lizard, which lives on sandy and gravelly soils in the Sonoran Desert portion of California, has declined in numbers for many years as its habitat has been converted for urban, agricultural, and industrial use. But in part because the lizard is relatively hard to detect in the wild, previous attempts to protect the flat-tail under the federal Endangered Species list have failed, with federal agencies claiming not enough is known about the lizard's actual numbers.

Instead, state and federal agencies have attempted to bolster flat-tailed numbers through voluntary management plans. But that hasn't worked to stem the species' decline, say wildlife advocates, who lauded Thursday's decision by the Fish and Game Commission to consider listing the flat-tail.

"I'm happy to see these charismatic little lizards finally getting long-overdue protection," said Ileene Anderson with the Center for Biological Diversity, which had petitioned the Commission to list the lizard. "Flat-tailed horned lizards have been in trouble for years in our deserts because of off-road vehicles, climate change and habitat destruction. State protection could ultimately be the difference between survival or extinction for these unique animals."

That protection has been a long time coming: since 1997, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service has withdrawn three proposals to list the species under the federal Endangered Species Act.

Though the commission has a year to make a final decision on whether the flat-tail should be listed under the California Endangered Species Act, the lizards will temporarily enjoy the full protection of the law as a candidate species while their case is being considered. That means it's now illegal in the state to kill, injure, or capture the lizards without a permit from the state.

Part of the lizard's failure to adapt to our wholesale conversion of its habitat stems from its habit, when confronted by a potential threat, of running a short distance and then freezing in place. While this strategy works well to conceal the well-camouflaged lizard from potential predators, it's not nearly as effective against bulldozers or the tires of off-road vehicles.

Those knobby tires constitute one of the biggest threats to the flat-tailed horned lizard. Despite an agreement among state and federal agencies to manage open lands in the Colorado Desert to benefit the lizard, both the Bureau of Land Management and the California State Parks' Off Highway Motor Vehicle Recreation Division have chosen to give off-roading a higher priority than saving the lizard. The BLM recently reopened a large swath of important flat-tail habitat in the Algodones Dunes to off-roading, while lizard habitat in the Ocotillo Wells State Vehicular Recreation Area near Anza Borrego Desert State Park has been increasingly trampled by essentially unregulated off-roading.

Solar development in Imperial County also has an increasing effect on flat-tails. We've heard anecdotal reports of the lizards coming up onto roads in Imperial Valley solar facilities to drink from puddles left behind by dust control water trucks, and thus exposing themselves to the threat of becoming low-velocity roadkill. Simple habitat destruction from such development also takes its toll on the lizards.

The flat-tailed horned lizard, Phrynosoma mcallii, grows about four inches long and subsists on a diet of harvester ants. It originally ranged throughout California's low desert from Palm Springs to Yuma, with additional populations in Arizona and Mexico. The lizard's Coachella Valley population, almost extirpated by that valley's sprawling development, still barely hangs on in a couple of isolated preserves.

"Flat-tailed horned lizard populations have been declining for decades," said Anderson. "We've come to a critical point where we need to protect this species now to save it from extinction."

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