A 10-year struggle by conservationists to secure protection for a rare, prehistoric-looking lizard under the Endangered Species Act appears to be dying, as the Bush administration has withdrawn a proposal to declare the creature threatened.
After a tortured, lengthy legal dispute centered more on courthouses than the desert dunes that are home to the flat-tailed horned lizard, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service said Friday that the lizard is not in danger of extinction.
Consequently, the agency said, it has withdrawn a 1993 plan to list the lizard as threatened, which would have provided it with widespread protections, including provisions keeping its habitat safe from new development.
"We had to take a hard, objective look at the science," said Jane Hendron, a spokeswoman at the Carlsbad office of the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, which has jurisdiction over most of six Southern California counties. "The science did not indicate that the species required the listing."
Environmental advocates, however, seized on the decision as further evidence that the Bush administration continues to favor industry, development and corporate interests over ecological concerns.
According to several biologists, the horned lizard continues to decline in Arizona, California and Baja California largely because its habitat has been turned over to urban and agricultural uses.
Those uses include crops, housing, off-road vehicles, geothermal leases, gravel pits and military exercises, said Daniel R. Patterson, desert ecologist with the Idyllwild-based Center for Biological Diversity.
"This unjustified denial of desert wildlife protection continues the president's anti-environmental policies and ensures more litigation," Patterson said. "This political decision is a favor to industry that flies in the face of biological facts and the compelling national interest for wildlife conservation."
Most flat-tailed horned lizards are about 3 1/2 inches long.
They inhabit wide swaths of the Sonoran desert and are voracious consumers of harvester ants, consuming as many as 200 a day.
Pesticides used on agricultural operations are believed to kill off ants, further endangering the lizard, conservationists say.
The debate over the lizard dates to 1993.
Then, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service proposed listing the lizard as a threatened species.
The proposal soon became tied up in litigation, which resulted in a series of court actions that kept the proposal in limbo.
In December 2001, Fish and Wildlife issued a public notice that it would once again pursue the designation.
But after a lengthy public hearing process and a scientific review, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service determined that the listing was no longer warranted, Herndon said.
Environmental organizations scoff at the agency's logic -- criticizing, for example, the argument that the lizards are hard to find and thus difficult to classify as threatened.
The lizard is hard to find, environmental groups counter, precisely because its survival is threatened.