SAN FRANCISCO— In response to a lawsuit brought by the Center for Biological Diversity and a number of other groups, the Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals ruled today that the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service’s decision to deny the flat-tailed horned lizard protection under the Endangered Species Act was illegal and again ordered the agency to consider protection for the lizard.
“The flat-tailed horned lizard is severely threatened by urban and agricultural sprawl and needs protection as an endangered species to survive,” said Noah Greenwald, biodiversity program director at the Center for Biological Diversity. “With today’s court decision, we hope the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service has finally gotten the message that it cannot legally deny this imperiled species protection.”
Significantly, the decision rejected a Bush administration policy developed by the solicitor of the Department of the Interior in 2007 that required the Fish and Wildlife Service to ignore loss of historic range when determining if species warrant protection under the Endangered Species Act. The decision observes that “the Secretary clings to his argument that lost historical habitat is largely irrelevant to the recovery of the species, and thus the ESA does not require him to consider it,” and then roundly rejects this position, concluding that past court decisions require “the Secretary to analyze lost historical range.”
“This decision goes beyond the flat-tailed horned lizard by seriously undermining the Bush administration’s position that loss of historic range is not a basis for protecting species under the Endangered Species Act,” said Greenwald. “The courts have determined today that the Bush administration’s emergency-room approach to species protection — in which only species that are on the brink of extinction everywhere are protected — is plainly illegal.”
The flat-tailed horned lizard inhabits portions of southern California (Riverside, Imperial, and San Diego counties), Arizona (Yuma county), and northwestern Mexico (Sonora, Baja Calif. N). It is severely threatened by habitat destruction caused by urban and agricultural sprawl, off-road vehicles, and other threats.
“Fifteen years after first being proposed for the endangered species list, the flat-tailed horned lizard has not fared well under past administrations’ efforts to derail its listing,” said Kara Gillon, senior staff attorney with Defenders of Wildlife. “This is the third time that a court has told the Fish and Wildlife Service to go back and review its refusal to protect the flat tailed horned lizard under the Endangered Species Act. These lizards need these protections now more than ever, if we are to avoid the loss of this species and the dwindling wild places that form its last refuge. We’re hoping that the third time’s the charm; these lizards are running out of time.”
The species was first proposed for listing in 1993. The proposal has since been withdrawn three times with conservation groups successfully challenging each withdrawal in court. The groups involved in the latest court challenge include the Tucson Herpetological Society, Defenders of Wildlife, Center for Biological Diversity, Horned Lizard Conservation Society, and Sierra Club, who were represented by attorneys Neil Levine, a private attorney, and Bill Snape, senior counsel with the Center for Biological Diversity.
As the common name suggests, the species is recognized by its broad, flattened tail but also has long, sharp horns on its head, two rows of fringe scales along its abdomen, a dark stripe along its backbone, and concealed external ear openings. Adults range in size between 2.5 and 4.3 inches long, excluding the tail.