Flat-tailed Horned Lizards Have Declined for Decades, Threatened by Habitat Destruction, Off-road Vehicles
SACRAMENTO, Calif.— In response to a petition from the Center for Biological Diversity, California’s Fish and Game Commission today made the flat-tailed horned lizard a candidate for protection under the California Endangered Species Act. As a candidate species, flat-tailed horned lizards are now protected under the law, which makes it illegal to kill, harm or capture the small lizards without state authorization. State wildlife officials will analyze the status of the species and make a final protection decision within the year.
“I’m happy to see these charismatic little lizards finally getting long-overdue protection,” said Ileene Anderson, a senior scientist with the Center. “Flat-tailed horned lizards have been in trouble for years in our deserts because of off-road vehicles, climate change and habitat destruction. State protection could ultimately be the difference between survival or extinction for these unique animals.”
In December 2014 the California Department of Fish and Wildlife presented its findings to the Fish and Game Commission that there was sufficient scientific information in the petition to indicate that protecting the lizard might be warranted. The rare lizards are being pushed toward extinction by habitat loss, off-road vehicles and global warming.
Flat-tailed horned lizards once lived throughout large regions of the Sonoran Desert in Southern California, but urban sprawl and agricultural development have destroyed much of their habitat. The animals face serious ongoing threats from continued development and off-road vehicles, which tend to crush them frequently 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. 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. Only one small population remains in Coachella Valley, where the lizards were once abundant.
“Flat-tailed horned lizard populations have been declining for decades,” said Anderson. “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, flat-tailed horned lizards have broad, flattened tails and long, sharp horns on their head. Adults range from 2.5 to 4.3 inches long, excluding the tail. Within California flat-tailed horned lizards inhabit portions of the Sonoran Desert in Southern California’s California Desert Conservation Area, in Riverside, Imperial and San Diego counties. They eat mostly harvester ants.