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Lone Star Green 

Endangered Species Act has kept the water flowing in South Texas and won’t stop the oil, either

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And still newspaper headlines and editorial cartoons continue to reflect an “us or them” mentality dismissive of value-questionable biological handiwork. One would think that a region roiled by boom-and-bust-style economic activity — be it cotton, cattle, or oil — we’d be studying the economies of the cave beetles to see how it’s done. After all, we’ve only been here for a few minutes by comparison.

And, ultimately, many of the fears of decades past simply haven’t played out. The cave bugs led to the creation of the Edwards Aquifer Authority, charged with managing our aquifer so that we always have a healthy supply of safe drinking water. The endangered pupfish out in the West Texas oasis town of Balmorhea kept growing cities hundreds of miles away from poaching the farming community’s water. And the Golden-cheeked warblers now bring cash to landowners wherever they weave their juniper-bark nests. “Landowners are realizing that it’s actually a commodity, not a liability, to have endangered species on their property,” said Texas Parks and Wildlife urban wildlife biologist Richard Heilbrun. Conservation easements purchased on one side of the Hill Country by developers to offset damage they do to habitat elsewhere are paying on average $4,000 per acre — and landowners still get to run cattle, subdivide for family members, and build homesteads, in many cases.

So where is human industry being punished for protecting these unique species? It would seem that we’re already getting back more than we’re putting in. As Heilbrun says: “It’s very easy to jump into that divisive mentality, but in many cases, after all the agreements and the permits and the media frenzy has died down, oftentimes we find there’s room for both conservation and economic development.”

That dune lizard that inspired such a frantic headline?

Just a couple days later, the Midland Reporter-Telegram was reporting that experts were dismissive of the crisis language. The lizards already benefit from a strong conservation program in New Mexico, and the lizard habitat on the Texas side appears to be easy to identify and avoid with small changes in industry practices.

As statewide oil and gas extraction jobs rose by nearly 5 percent in the last 12 months, and oilfield service jobs rose by 21 percent — a total of 27,000 new jobs, according to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics — you’d think we wouldn’t mind sharing a few hundred acres along the state’s fringe.

As much ink as has been spilled celebrating the fracking boom across South Texas, we’d do well to keep in mind along with this perceived good fortune one thing endangered species do well. “The idea of the Endangered Species Act is to allow our communities to grow in concert with the sustainability of these sensitive species,” Flatt said. “And oftentimes the endangered species is the canary in the coalmine that alerts us to unsustainable practice.”

So, heads up, West Texas. Even if we don’t understand it today, canaries like the dune lizard — though they’ve served as silent scapegoats for many a politician — have been good to us. Given the turbulent sea of extinction growling beneath us, to treat them otherwise would not only be unkind, but incredibly shortsighted.

Greg Harman is the editor of the San Antonio Current. His column Lone Star Green will be published monthly.

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