Dunes Sagebrush Lizard Considerations & West Texas Frac Sand Operations
The Dunes Sagebrush Lizard (“DSL”) has recently been the topic of renewed interest and discussion as industry participants have announced potential frac sand facility development in the Permian Basin. The DSL is not an endangered species nor a threatened species. Hi-Crush has prepared the following to offer insights as to the key issues related to the DSL and the measures taken by Hi-Crush to ensure operations at our Kermit, Texas facility pose no threat to the DSL.
The DSL is a small, light brown lizard found in shinnery oak dune habitat, located in southeastern New Mexico and west Texas. The connection between the DSL shinnery oak system is very specific and the range of the species is closely linked to the distribution of the shinnery oak dunes and the quality and quantity of available shinnery oak dune habitat.
In 2012, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service or “Service” estimated that the presence of 600,000 acres of shinnery oak in the DSL’s range. In Texas, the Service has estimated the existence of approximately 197,600 acres of occupied and suitable DSL habitat in Texas. A map, referred to as the Hibbits map and drawn several years ago, generally identifies areas of DSL habitat zones in five counties in Texas and classifies the zones based on categories of occurrence ranging from “very low” to “very high” likelihood. The map estimates reflect approximately 98,000 acres of potential DSL habitat in Winkler County, Texas alone. According to the Texas Conservation Plan for the Dunes Sagebrush Lizard dated February 13, 2012 (the “TCP”), the Hibbits map was created by “approved methods of aerial photography to identify shinnery dunes habitat” or historical records. In an apparent acknowledgement of the potential shortcomings of the map to accurately identify actual DSL habitat or the existence of the DSL within the areas shown on the map, the TCP notes that the “Hibbits Map (Figure 1-2) needs additional survey and map refinement,” and “on-site surveys are needed to further the science and understanding/mapping of habitat.” In addition, “dune ‘complexes’ could be identified from the aerial photography and unless survey data was available to indicate otherwise, entire dune complexes were considered the same likelihood of occurrence.”1 In short, the designation of a given site as “very high” likelihood of DSL occurrence on the Hibbits map does not establish the actual existence of habitat or DSL on that site.
The Hi-Crush Kermit facility is located on 1,226 acres of land in Winkler County. Although the majority of our acreage at our Kermit facility is included in area on the Hibbits map categorized as very high likelihood, we can state definitively that the diligence we have conducted on our site establishes that the areas we are mining on our site have no DSL habitat nor any DSLs. The site we are mining is a former dune buggy park located on an active dune complex, virtually denuded of vegetation, and unique in that the shinnery oak complexes viewed as ideal DSL habitat are non-existent on the Hi-Crush development. The photos labeled Figure 1. and Figure 2. on page 3 show the profound contrast between DSL habitat (Figure 1.) and the Hi-Crush site (Figure 2.) which is universally acknowledged to lack necessary habitat to support a DSL population. The Service has recognized that off-highway vehicle use like that occurring at our Kermit site can result in soil compaction, reduce plant cover, and degrade habitat, resulting in localized impacts to the DSL, but not significant impacts to the species as a whole. Our planned mining operations will occur within the footprint where such localized impacts have already occurred.
Prior to the acquisition of the Kermit site in March 2017, we conducted comprehensive diligence on environmental matters, including endangered species assessments. In our diligence, a state certified wildlife biologist conducted extensive on-site habitat assessments and presence surveys, concluded that no DSL habitat exists in the areas we plan to excavate sand, and documented no evidence of DSL activity.
Hi-Crush mining operations involve the excavation of limited panels of mineable reserves (less than 30 acres per year) followed by infill and reclamation/restoration of the site. To date, Hi-Crush mining has occurred on less than 5 acres, none of which is actual DSL habitat according to our state certified wildlife biologist.
We believe that Hi-Crush and other individual players in the sand industry are taking prudent and conscientious measures to address the issue of the DSL, and its habitat, where it may exist. While we have no habitat on areas to be mined on our site, we are supportive of the measures taken by our peers that may have habitat and DSLs on their prospective mine locations. Ultimately we are confident that the science and the facts will prevail and result in a more reasoned tone to future dialog.
Hi-Crush representatives and consultants have met with Dr. Robert Gulley from the Texas Comptroller’s Office which administers a voluntary conservation plan, and remain in active dialog with representatives from business and regulatory agencies. Hi-Crush is supportive of the ongoing dialog and collaborative efforts to avoid the listing of the DSL.
Excerpts from the June 2012 US Fish & Wildlife Service Final Determination “Endangered and Threatened Wildlife and Plants; Withdrawal of the Proposed Rule to List the Dunes Sagebrush Lizard”
The DSL (Sceloporus arenicolus) is a small, light-brown lizard, only found in shinnery oak dune habitat, located in southeastern New Mexico and West Texas. The dune habitat lies within a small portion of the overall shinnery oak community. Each shinnery oak tree occurs primarily under ground, with only one-tenth of the plant standing 2 to 3 feet above ground level. The presence of DSLs is also directly linked to the quality and quantity of available shinnery oak dune. Shinnery oak provides structure to the dune system, provides critical shelter for the DSL’s thermoregulation (regulation of body temperature), and habitat for the DSL’s insect prey base, which includes ants; small beetles, including lady bird beetles and their larvae; crickets; grasshoppers; and spiders. Within the shinnery oak dune system, DSLs are found in deep, wind-hollowed depressions called blowouts. These large, steep blowouts provide habitat for thermoregulation, foraging, and predator avoidance, where DSLs escape under leaf litter or loose sand during the hot part of the day and at night. Besides the shinnery oak dunes, DSLs may sometimes be found in shinnery oak flats that are adjacent to occupied dunes.
In Texas, the species was historically found in Andrews, Crane, Gaines, Ward, and Winkler Counties. During 2006, 2007 and 2011, surveys were conducted to determine the distribution of the DSL in the State. Based on these surveys, it was estimated that there are 98,320 acres of habitat in Winkler County.
The Texas Conservation Plan
A voluntary conservation plan has been developed for DSL habitat in Texas. The Texas Conservation Plan was developed in conjunction with the Texas Comptroller’s Office (the permittee) and many stakeholders, including Federal, State, and private partners representing interests in the natural resource, oil and gas, ranching, and agricultural industries. The Texas Conservation Plan focuses on the avoidance of activities within lizard habitat that would degrade habitat, reclamation of lizard habitat to reduce fragmentation, and, due to the presence of mesquite in Texas habitat, removal of mesquite that is encroaching into shinnery oak dunes. If avoidance of lizard habitat cannot be accomplished, the participants may adopt conservation measures that minimize habitat impacts, and as a last resort, mitigate for the loss of lizard habitat. On February 17, 2012, the Texas Conservation Plan was signed, and as of May 2012, 71 percent (138,640 acres) of the habitat in Texas had been enrolled in this plan. The Texas Conservation Plan contemplated that 21,257 acres of DSL habitat could be disturbed under the auspices of the plan over its 30 year term. To date, the Texas Comptroller’s Office has estimated that less than 300 acres have been disturbed by participants in the plan and less than 2,400 acres have been disturbed by entities not participating in the plan.