Snakes, salamanders, and other slimy specimens peer sightlessly out from rows of glass jars in a College Station archive. As Lee Fitzgerald walks past roughly 115,000 preserved amphibians and reptiles that belong to Texas A&M University’s Biodiversity Research and Teaching Collections, he points out a boa constrictor from California, a goliath frog from Cameroon, and a thorny devil from Australia. In front of one metal shelf, he stops before a hefty container piled with about thirty lizard corpses in varying shades of brown and gray. Fitzgerald picks up the jar and holds it up proudly, as one might when introducing a beloved pet.

He and fellow herpetologists collected these two-inch-long lizards during more than three decades of research in West Texas and New Mexico, where the creatures make their homes in dunes of coarse sand. Since Fitzgerald started studying the dunes sagebrush lizard in the 1990s, the reptile has suffered significant population loss and habitat destruction, mostly from road construction that comes with oil, gas, and sand extraction. According to a 2023 analysis by the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, the dunes sagebrush lizard is now “functionally extinct” across 47 percent of its range. Only in a small patch of the Permian Basin, in West Texas and southeastern New Mexico, does the critter endure.

Now the species awaits a fateful ruling as the agency deliberates over whether to list it as endangered. That designation would restrict land use within the lizard’s habitat, potentially protecting it from extinction. But its habitat includes sand and brush lying above valuable deposits of oil and natural gas, putting the tiny creature at the center of a political and economic battle that has been intensifying since 2002. That’s when the Center for Biological Diversity, an environmental nonprofit based in Tucson, first petitioned for the lizard to be listed as endangered. The oil and gas industry has successfully lobbied against the designation, leading to state-run, voluntary conservation agreements instead of long-term, federal requirements.

Lee Fitzgerald holds a jar of preserved dunes sagebrush lizards at Texas A&M University’s Biodiversity Research and Teaching Collections.
Lee Fitzgerald holds a jar of preserved dunes sagebrush lizards at Texas A&M University’s Biodiversity Research and Teaching Collections.Photograph by Kaley Johnson

Toeing the line between advocacy and scientific inquiry, Fitzgerald has drawn on decades of research to push for conservation in the West Texas desert. He has met with stakeholder organizations to explain the lizards’ plight and watched as conservation took a back seat to jobs and profits in the oil and gas industry. His hopes for permanent protection of the lizard have repeatedly been trampled, but he is not backing down. “Is the lizard gonna make it?” he asked. “I’m sure not giving up.”

Fitzgerald’s love for all things small and scaly started early. When he was a five-year-old growing up in the Houston suburb of Pasadena in the 1960s, his father died of a heart attack at age 41. Then a kindergartener, Fitzgerald took comfort in a three-toed box turtle that he spotted while walking around the neighborhood with his mother. He took the turtle home, where his uncle made a pen for it. That encounter was the beginning of a life spent marveling at reptiles and amphibians. “I just remember everything about that turtle,” Fitzgerald said. After earning his bachelor’s degree in biology at Stephen F. Austin State University, Fitzgerald studied iguanas in El Salvador until the civil war in that country heated up and he was evacuated to Paraguay. There he worked with biologists to establish the country’s first National Museum of Natural History. “He still carries the spirit of a little boy—the adventurer, the kid who wants to go to the backyard or in the back creek and look for salamanders,” said Amanda Stronza, an anthropologist and A&M colleague. “He has that curiosity and real love for what he does.”

Fitzgerald’s adventure with the dunes sagebrush lizard began in 1993, when fellow herpetologist Charlie Painter, of the New Mexico Department of Game and Fish, asked if he wanted to help figure out where exactly this species lived. Fitzgerald, Painter, and two assistants drove and camped across the Mescalero Sands in New Mexico and the Monahans Sandhills in West Texas, counting lizards. They often slept on the ground and cooked over an open fire. To catch specimens, they sometimes sling-shot rubber bands at the lizards to stun them, a process Fitzgerald called the “Rubber Band Lizard Collecting Technique.” They would also lasso the critters with string, in quintessential Texas fashion.

The lizards were delightful to observe: they appeared to swim through the sand and would dive into its depths. Watching them scurry through the sparse vegetation, Fitzgerald admired how deftly the reptiles had adapted to their desert home. But he also realized that they were in trouble. The dunes sagebrush lizard is what’s known as a microendemic species, or one with very specific habitat requirements met only in a relatively small area. It lives only in specific patches spread across West Texas and New Mexico, where shinnery oak trees and coarse sands create small dunes with the perfect conditions for this picky reptile to build its burrows and dine on ants, beetles, and other insects.

Oil fields, and the maze of roads required to service them, fragment the landscape this species calls home. When sand dunes are bisected by a road, the lizard population in that area plummets. Shinnery oak roots anchor the sand dunes, and the tree’s foliage shelters insects. But the leaves are toxic to cattle, so ranchers often attack the trees with herbicides.

Environmentalists have been pushing for the lizard to be listed as endangered since at least 2002, when the Center for Biological Diversity filed a petition. Eight years later, in 2010, the Fish and Wildlife Service officially proposed adding the lizard to the list.

The reptile’s West Texas range lies about thirty miles west of Odessa, in a crescent that measures about fifteen miles wide and seventy miles long, running roughly from Andrews south to Monahans. All of that range lies within the Permian Basin, which accounts for nearly 40 percent of all oil production in the country, and nearly 15 percent of its natural gas production, according to the Railroad Commission of Texas, which is supposed to regulate the petroleum industry. Listing the dunes sagebrush lizard as endangered could significantly limit oil and gas exploration and production in the reptile’s habitat, so opposition was fierce.

Sean Hannity lamented on Fox News in 2011 that this “pesky little critter” could endanger the oil industry. The same year, U.S. senator John Cornyn proposed a bill that would’ve blocked the Fish and Wildlife Service from listing the lizard as endangered, but the measure didn’t pass. In 2012, then-President Barack Obama made a stop in the Permian Basin to talk about the importance of domestic oil production. The pump jack he chose as a backdrop for his speech happened to be located atop a lizard research site in New Mexico. “He didn’t mention the lizard, but the subtext was, ‘This is not going to stop production,’ ” Fitzgerald said.

The next year, the Fish and Wildlife Service dropped its proposal for the lizard to be listed as endangered, a decision cheered by the oil and gas industry. The agency instead approved voluntary conservation agreements with owners of land where the lizards reside in New Mexico and Texas. The states create provisions for those agreements through a conservation plan. Texas’s plan allows oil and gas development and ranching in the lizards’ habitat, but participating landowners are only allowed to collectively destroy about 1,750 acres of lizard habitat. Texas’s conservation plan has gone through numerous revisions over the years, and membership dropped sharply in 2020, according to a report by current permit-holder American Conservation Foundation, a Texas-based nonprofit. As of March 2024, only eight landowners were part of the conservation plan, according to the Fish and Wildlife Service.

In New Mexico, conservation measures are more stringent and require that oil and gas facilities and roads stay out of the habitat entirely. The Fish and Wildlife Service’s petition notes that the New Mexico plans are more effective than Texas’s, which the agency’s scientists don’t expect to “have a measurable effect in protecting the dunes sagebrush lizard or its habitat.” Fitzgerald called the plans “toothless” and “an example of the state prioritizing oil and gas over conservation.”

Meanwhile, Fitzgerald has watched the lizard population shrink along with its habitat. In several sand dune “neighborhoods,” the animal has disappeared entirely, his research shows. Only about 6 percent of the species’ habitat range is in good condition to support a robust population, according to an estimate from the New Mexico Ecological Services Office. Another 47 percent is in moderate condition and might be able to support populations, but is in danger of being further disturbed to the point that the creatures cannot survive there.“Policy makers that are against conserving the lizard think that this small lizard is not worth causing trouble for the oil and gas industry,” Fitzgerald said.

Conservationists have continued to push for protections. In 2018, the Center for Biological Diversity and Defenders of Wildlife again petitioned for the lizard to be listed as endangered. The measures that they proposed would prohibit actions that would damage the lizards’ habitat, including destruction of the shinnery oak and sand dunes and the use of herbicides. Land users would need a permit from the Fish and Wildlife Service to engage in any activities that would cause habitat destruction.

The federal agency announced in June 2023 that it was seeking public input on the proposal. The comment period closed in October, and a ruling could come at any time. Fitzgerald’s hopes aren’t high. He and others have been making the same arguments for decades to no avail.

What’s most frustrating, he says, is how easy it would be to save the lizard. While the species’ habitat lies above petroleum deposits, the lizards live in less than 2 percent of the Permian Basin and less than 5 percent of the six Texas counties where it exists. Fitzgerald said it would not be difficult to avoid building roads or mines directly on the sand dunes. Directional drilling, a common technique that creates bores at a slant instead of vertically, is another option that he said could avoid disrupting the dunes. But these protective measures have largely not been implemented in Texas. Some oil rigs and roads allow one hundred feet of space between construction and sand dunes, but Fitzgerald said even this disturbs the fragile dune structure. “It would be very easy to protect the habitat and still get the oil,” he said, “but they refuse to agree with that.”

Relocating lizards is also a possible conservation strategy. The animals would have to be moved to a shinnery oak habitat that is protected from human disruption, but according to a 2022 report by Fitzgerald and colleagues, this could be one way to reestablish the population outside of fragmented areas. Conservationists have had some success applying this tactic for other species, including Texas’s native bobwhite quail.

Critics of the conservation plans argue that avoiding the habitat would cost billions of dollars. One of the most outspoken groups is the Permian Basin Petroleum Association, made up of companies with interests in the Permian Basin. (Texas Monthly’s chairman is also chairman of the managing partner of Enterprise Products Partners L.P., a midstream energy company with interests that include pipelines and storage facilities. Enterprise Products Partners is not a member of the Permian Basin Petroleum Association, nor has it taken a position on protections for the dunes sagebrush lizard.)

Ben Shepperd, the association’s president, said the dunes sagebrush lizard petition originated from environmental groups that have “a clear goal of ridding Texas, America and, frankly, the planet of all hydrocarbon exploration and production. . . . We certainly feel like we’re under attack from environmental groups, and they have a voice in this administration,” he said.

Shepperd said he respects Fitzgerald and his research; the association invited Fitzgerald to its Midland headquarters, where Fitzgerald gave presentations about lizard conservation. The Permian Basin Petroleum Association encourages its members to learn about the conservation programs, Shepperd said, and “consider whether or not those plans make sense for them and how to make them work.” But he worries not only that an “endangered” designation for the lizard would create strict guidelines that are expensive to comply with, but also that potential investors would be scared off by the uncertainty of future conservation, “making people’s investments useless, worthless overnight.” He pointed to the work that his group has done to help the endangered prairie chicken population as proof that it cares about Texas’s vulnerable flora and fauna.

Decades of research has shown that the lizard population is declining, to the point that the U.S. Fish and Wildlife service found that the species is in danger of extinction throughout its range. Still, opponents of increased protections for the lizard deny that it faces any danger at all. The Texas Public Policy Foundation, a right-wing advocacy group funded in large part by oil and gas interests, claimed in a 2023 press release that there “is no scientific evidence demonstrating that the lizard is or soon will be endangered, nor is there evidence that the lizard’s habitat is threatened by oil and gas production or frac sand mining.”

Rob Henneke, the executive director and general counsel for the Center for the American Future at the Texas Public Policy Foundation, said further protections are unnecessary. “It’s these outside leftist environmental groups that have been pushing for decades to abuse the Endangered Species Act as a way of gaining federal regulatory control over the Permian Basin,” he said.

Other naysayers include some working in the same university system as Fitzgerald. Two million acres of the oil-rich Permian Basin are owned and leased by Texas A&M and the University of Texas. University Lands, a joint A&M–UT office, leases out the land to oil and gas companies for billions of dollars each year, and the income goes to the Permanent University Fund, one of the nation’s biggest university endowments. According to the agency’s annual report, 2022 was the most lucrative year yet, with $2.22 billion in profits.

An economic analysis of University Lands in 2017 dedicated several pages to the impact that lizard conservation could have on the Permanent University Fund. The report, which begins with a title page declaring “And Fountains of Unstinted Wealth Will Gush Forth,” claims that restrictions in development to protect the lizard would cost “$2.0 billion in gross product and about 18,800 person-years of employment” from 2017 to 2040. The report also contended that the lizards’ population is not falling and conservation is not needed. University Lands did not respond to interview requests from Texas Monthly.

“Their knee-jerk reaction is it is a costly inconvenience that messes with their bottom line, and it’s bullshit they would have to do that for a little lizard,” Fitzgerald said of policy makers who oppose new measures to protect the reptile. While his research predicts that extinction may be nigh, he also believes there is time left to save the species. The lizard is intrinsically connected to its ecosystem; it eats plants and bugs and is prey for larger creatures, including charismatic birds of prey. While this species’ extinction alone would not mean the collapse of that system, Fitzgerald compares it to removing rivets from an airplane: taking out a few might not cause catastrophe, but if enough parts are lost, the plane falls apart. “The bigger picture,” he said, “is how much loss of the environment and species are we willing to tolerate?”