SACRAMENTO, Calif.— In response to a petition from the Center for Biological Diversity, California’s Department of Fish and Wildlife says flat-tailed horned lizards may warrant protection under the state’s Endangered Species Act. The department presented its findings to the Fish and Game Commission last week. A decision is expected to be on its agenda in February 2015. The rare lizards are being pushed toward extinction by habitat loss, off-road vehicles and global warming.
“The Department of Fish and Wildlife has recognized that all the data point to this charismatic little lizard’s demise in our desert,” said Ileene Anderson, a senior scientist with the Center. “The fate of the flat-tail is now in the hands of the commission. State protection could be the difference between life and death for these unique creatures.”
The flat-tailed horned lizard once lived throughout large regions of the Sonoran Desert in Southern California, but urban sprawl and agricultural development have destroyed much of its habitat. Only one small population remains in Coachella Valley, for instance, where the lizards were once abundant. The animals face serious ongoing threats from development and off-road vehicles, which tend to crush them easily due to the “freeze in place” strategy they adopt when threatened. Transmission lines, roads, energy development, global warming and U.S. border-related stresses also threaten them.
Despite a voluntary “Interagency Conservation Agreement” that has governed lizard management since 1997, declines of the species continue, and land-management agencies have actually exacerbated key threats rather than protecting essential habitats. For example, the Bureau of Land Management recently opened more than 43,000 previously protected acres of lizard habitat in the Algodones Dunes in Imperial County to destructive and intensive ORV use. The Ocotillo Wells State Vehicular Recreation Area, designated as a lizard “research area” under the agreement, is being severely and increasingly degraded by permitted and unrestricted ORV driving, and other lizard-management areas have been similarly damaged by ORVs.
“Flat-tail horned lizard populations have been declining for decades,” said Anderson. “And we’ve come to a critical point where we need to protect this species now to save it from extinction.”
As the common name suggests, the flat-tailed horned lizard has a broad, flattened tail and long, sharp horns on its head. Adults range from 2.5 to 4.3 inches long, excluding the tail. Within California, the flat-tailed horned lizard inhabits portions of the Sonoran Desert in Southern California’s California Desert Conservation Area, in Riverside, Imperial and San Diego counties. It eats mostly harvester ants.