Officials seek to protect desert reptile

The fragile environment of the Mojave Desert has produced another candidate for protection under the Endangered Species Act: the Mojave fringe-toed lizard.

The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service and a conservation group, the Center for Biological Diversity, made separate announcements Thursday stating the Amargosa River population of the Mojave fringe-toed lizard will undergo an in-depth review for listing under the act as called for in a petition filed by the center.

The population of interest exists in the Amargosa River area of San Bernardino County, Calif. The river originates in Nye County, Nev.

Federal wildlife biologists also found that the center’s assertion of the lizard’s Amargosa River population being “a distinct and separate population” may be warranted, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service states.

It notes that “the finding does not mean that the Service has decided to list the Amargosa population of the Mojave fringe-toed lizard. Rather, the Service will now conduct an in-depth review — called a 12-month finding — of all the biological information available on the species to determine whether the Amargosa population … is a ‘distinct population’ and subsequently decide whether it warrants listing as a threatened or endangered species.”

The Center for Biological Diversity blamed the lizard’s demise on off-road vehicle traffic allowed by the Bureau of Land Management in a pair of sand dunes that comprise 98 percent of its range. The dunes are popular among off-roaders in the Southwest.

“Although the lizard can evade predators and extreme midday heat by using its fringed toes to swiftly bury itself in the fine sands of the dunes it inhabits, it remains close enough to the surface that it is still vulnerable to death or injury from off-road vehicles’ sand-digging tires,” the statement from the center reads.

The smooth-skinned lizard, with a body up to 4 inches long and a tail the same length, lives in three dunes in and adjacent to Death Valley National Park. Its largest habitat is Dumont Dunes, which along with Ibex Dune comprise most of its range.

The center’s statement quotes University of Toronto zoology professor Robert W. Murphy as saying the discovery of the lizard’s Amargosa River population “as genetically very distinct was completely unanticipated.”

The center’s statement goes on to say that “the greatest threat to the lizard is intensive off-road recreational vehicle use, which has killed many individuals directly or destroyed habitat.”

The Dumont Dunes Off-Road Vehicle Recreation Area, managed by the Bureau of Land Management, “attracts more than 100,000 off-roader per year and contains the bulk of the lizard’s habitat,” the center’s statement reads.

“Illegal trespass into Death Valley National Park at Ibex Dune occurs due to spillover from Dumont Dunes. Yet the Bureau of Land Management has taken little action to protect the lizard from this rampant ORV (off-road vehicle) use,” it states.

Chris Kassar, a wildlife biologist for the Center for Biological Diversity, said the BLM “is largely responsible for the decline in the species because it’s authorized and accommodated increasing, intensive off-road vehicle use over so much of the species’ range.”

Attempts to reach a spokesman Thursday for the BLM’s California Desert District Office in Barstow, Calif., were unsuccessful.

Contact reporter Keith Rogers at krogers@reviewjournal.com or (702) 383-0308.

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