The scientific origin of vulnerable species

In a Washington Examiner piece about Washington's job killing machine, Hugh Hewitt gives an example of how the Endangered Species Act is being manipulated to thwart oil exploration: Texas, the U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service presides over the dunes sagebrush lizard's crawl toward protected status under the Endangered Species Act, which will quickly affect oil and gas exploration across west Texas.

The FWS was taking "input" last week and will continue to do so for a few more before acting to sequester tens of thousands of acres of resource-rich land from use.

These are just four fingers of the many-handed beast that the federal government has become. I am aware of each of them because my law partners and I practice in these areas and field calls daily from companies that have received a recall notice, or which produce food that will have to change its advertising, or who wish to build in areas that are dry 350 days a year but perhaps about to be regulated by the feds under new rules.

The lizard is just the latest in a long line of not-remotely-endangered species that get catapulted onto the "endangered species list" by radical environmentalist groups, with devastating consequences to land owners and those they employ in the building of residential or commercial projects or natural resource exploration.

This fascinated me, because I know the Sagebrush Lizard is quite common, so I took a closer look. It turns out that the Dunes Sagebrush Lizard is a species that until recently was a subspecies. 

The Dunes Sagebrush Lizard, Sceloporus arenicolus, (formerly known as Sand Dune Lizard and the Dunes-Sagebrush Lizard, Sceloporus graciosus arenicolus, a subspecies of sagebrush lizard), is an insectivorous spiny lizard species which only occurs in the Shinnery oak Sand Dune systems of extreme South-east New Mexico and only four counties in adjacent Texas. Sceloporus arenicolus has the second smallest range of all lizards in the United States.

Formerly a subspecies of the Sagebrush lizard? How does a former subspecies get to become its own species? 

By having its status elevated in 1992, that's how:

The dunes sagebrush lizard was elevated to a species in 1992 and this elevation was validated with molecular and morphological evidence in 1997

Elevated on whose authority? "Top scientists"? What sort of due process is involved? Considering the legal implications -- both to property owners and the general public -- of a threatened species designation, shouldn't all parties that might be affected have input?

And precisely what is a species?

A species is often defined as a group of organisms capable of interbreeding and producing fertile offspring.

Has it been officially verified that the Dunes Sagebrush Lizard cannot interbreed with other Sagebrush Lizards?

As I say, it matters. Because this alleged "species" of lizard is now considered a "vulnerable species."

A Vulnerable species is one which has been categorised by the International Union for Conservation of Nature (IUCN) as likely to become Endangered unless the circumstances threatening its survival and reproduction improve.

Vulnerability is mainly caused by habitat loss or destruction. Vulnerable species are monitored and are becoming threatened. However, some species listed as "vulnerable" may in fact be quite abundant in captivity, an example being the Venus Flytrap.

I hate to pick nits, but I have some major concerns about the methodology of species classification, as well as the methodology behind the determination of "vulnerable" status. 

I learned that there is considerable skepticism among scientists over the designation of similar Sceloporus lizards into species, because the various species can interbreed.

Sceloporus undulatus

The most widespread and variable Sceloporus in New Mexico. Infraspecific taxonomy is somewhat uncertain, and Sceloporus undulatus has been split into several species based on mitochondrial lineages by Dr. Leache of the University of Washington. However, these "species" apparently interbreed & do not correspond with morphological variation.

So if they interbreed, why would they be considered different "species"?

I don't know, but in this long scientific discussion, I found evidence that the creation of subspecies and the reclassification of subspecies into species might be based on factors other than pure science.

As an example of the importance of subspecies in conservational considerations, Sceloporus undulatus garmani, an arenicolous, terrestrial, cursorial, striped subspecies with reduced semeions (ventral color patches) appears to have become extinct, or nearly so, in parts of its range on the plains of eastern Colorado. On the contrary, another, very different, larger, cross-barred subspecies with well-developed semeions, S. u. erythrocheilus, remains common on the eastern slopes of the Rocky Mountain foothills, where it leads a scansorial life on trees and, mostly, rocks. The two subspecies occur within a few kilometers of each other in some areas, but no intergradation occurs and even gross sympatry is possible. Different conservational measures may be required for these two subspecies, but they would be difficult or impossible to prescribe or implement if no subspecies were recognized. Entire subspecies populations could become extinct if attention were directed to the species as a whole, which could be regarded as basically healthy. In cases such as this, elevating the constituent subspecies to species rank does not always provide a solution. For example, in the case cited, there is a complete, although stepped, continuity between the two taxa: S. u. garmani intergrades to the south with S. u. consobrinus, the latter with S. u. tristichus to the west, and that in turn with S. u. erythrocheilus to the north - a typical circular approximation of range, if not overlap.

Although the practical constraints of conservation efforts may require restriction of attention to the species rank, elevation of subspecies as here and as commonly defined to species rank would be a disservice to limited conservational efforts aimed at preservation only of major genetic resources.

Excuse me, but what has "conservation" to do with the elevation of a subspecies to a species? Has "science" has become an insiders' game where political considerations dictate when species are to be reclassified? If so, I am flabbergasted. But then, I grew up in a different era, when the scientific method prevailed, and scientists subjected each other to what was called "scientific scrutiny." It is one thing to for scientists to be interested in preserving species, but if species are being redefined to assist conservation efforts, than conservation (which is political) has contaminated science.

How can "scientific findings" be trusted when they translate directly into restrictive environmenal regulations?

While it is disturbing enough to find evidence that subspecies are being upgraded to species status for political reasons, what was even more disturbing (for me, anyway) was to discover this genetic analysis (PDF file) of numerous "subspecies" in a large, related lizard group.  In addition to including the Dunes-Sagebrush Lizard (Sceloporus arenicolus, formerly Sceloporus graciosus arenicolus), the genus Sceloporus includes many other species,  one of the largest being Sceleporus undulatus. Within undulatus, there have been numerous (11 or so) subspecies claims, and according to the study most of them turned out to be lacking in genetic support.

...our results indicate a significant amount of genetic structuring among the surveyed populations of S. undulatus. A notable result is the absence of fixed differences among the populations of S. undulatus. The lack of fixed allelic differences argues that S. undulatus comprises one large interbreeding species.

Got that, folks?

One large interbreeding species!

Apparently (and I guess if we charitably assume political considerations were not involved), the species designations were based simply on morphology:

The patterns emerging from our analysis of S. undulatus are largely consistent with the first hypothesis of Zink and Dittman (1993). For example, apart from the close relationship between the grassland populations, we found little correspondence between genetic similarity and geographic proximity (note the placement of Florida and Ohio, or South Carolina with the western populations). We argue that the recency of divergence among the various eastern and western populations has limited the opportunity for differentiation. Hence, we found no evidence that geographical races are reflected in genetic differentiation. Therefore, we have the scenario where ''morphology'' (scalation and coloration) has evolved at a different rate than molecules and suggests that the subspecies reflect convergence in morphology.

It would be like calling different breeds of dogs "subspecies" based on appearances. Or like saying that racial differences in humans denote subspecies. I think it is worth noting that many fish and lizards have the ability to change color depending on background, and captive-bred Oscars lack the extra dorsal spot that wild Oscars have. That geographic changes might induce behavioral changes accompanied by morphological changes is not surprising, but it should never be a basis for establishing a subspecies classification.

Just how scientific are these scientists? Who polices them?

Considering what I have read, I am very skeptical about the reclassification (elevation) of the Dunes Sagebrush Lizard subspecies Sceloporus graciosus arenicolus to species Sceloporus arenicolus.

I am also skeptical over the methodology of how the scientists determine the population. According to a long analysis published in the Federal Register, they (or, I suppose, their students) simply look to see whether they can find the lizards:

In Texas, the species was historically found in Andrews, Crane, Ward, and Winkler Counties. During 2006 and 2007, surveys were conducted to determine the current distribution of the dunes sagebrush lizard in the State. Surveys were conducted at 27 sites (19 of these sites were historical localities) that contained potential dunes sagebrush lizard habitat in Andrews, Crane, Cochran, Edwards, Ward, and Winkler Counties. Dunes sagebrush lizards were found at only 3 of the 27 sites surveyed (Laurencio et al. 2007, p. 7). Two of the sites were in large patches of shinnery oak dunes that stretch through Ward, Winkler, and Andrews Counties. In north and western Crane County, shinnery oak dune habitat exists, but dunes sagebrush lizards were not found. One dunes sagebrush lizard was found at a site in Gaines County that is within the easternmost contiguous habitat that stretches from the southernmost population in New Mexico (Laurencio et al. 2007, p. 11). The sites where dunes sagebrush lizards were detected in either 2006 or 2007 likely comprise the last occupied habitat for dunes sagebrush lizards in Texas (Laurencio et al. 2007, p. 11). During these surveys the search time to find dunes sagebrush lizards was between 68 and 115 person-minutes. The species is considered rare at sites where it takes more than 60 minutes to find a dunes sagebrush lizard. By comparison, at some sites in shinnery oak dune habitat in New Mexico, 74 percent of dunes sagebrush lizards are found within 31 person-minutes. The longer search time required to encounter individuals in a given area may represent a lower number of individuals in that area. Future surveys should incorporate detection probabilities and utilize standard survey techniques for the species, in order to more accurately compare results.Show citation box

Dunes sagebrush lizard populations in Texas are all on private land except for the population at Monahans Sandhills State Park, a 1,554-ha (3,840-ac) park where dunes sagebrush lizards were thought to be extirpated after surveys were completed in 2007 (Laurencio et al. 2007, p. 11). In 2010, the park was again surveyed, and dunes sagebrush lizards were present (Fitzgerald 2010, p. 1). Monahans Sandhills State Park is a well-known historic locality that is the only area where dunes sagebrush lizards have been known to occur on public lands in Texas. It is evident that the dunes sagebrush lizard is still present at the park, but the negative survey data from 2007 suggests they may be present in small numbers, and that further monitoring should be done at this site.

So they looked, but could only find the lizards in 3 out of 27 sites. So they say. How scientific is that? If I drove there and found some running around, would that count? Or do you have to have a Ph.D.? (BTW, are they running around on private land with permission of the owners?)

And what about bias? How can "surveys" which point to the presence or absence of lizards be seen as pure science when the people conducting them are environmentalists conducting the studies with full aware of the political implications of their findings? Isn't that a classic conflict of interest?

It is one thing to seek legitimate protection for a truly threatened and vulnerable species, but how do we know this is a true species, much less a truly threatened and vulnerable one? Because "scientists" say so?

My worry is that these scientists are biased activists with a huge amount of power to regulate and control large numbers of people, in the name of "science" that they alone define. 

Sorry, but when one group of people has the power to regulate the rest who have no say, that's tyranny. 

That it might be scientific tyranny is hardly comforting.

posted by Eric on 05.02.11 at 04:25 PM


Species status aside, how well does the animal handle the human presence? Do they adapt well, or do they tend to avoid humans?

Alan Kellogg   ·  May 3, 2011 2:29 AM

It appears that science supports those who support science. That is for sale to the highest bidder. What has happened to the "science" of global warming caused by human activity?

Hugh   ·  May 3, 2011 8:29 AM

Eric, we know they politicize science; remember the faked lynx data from the 90s? Washington Times published it originally but it's too old for their archives.

SDN   ·  May 3, 2011 12:57 PM

Inventing new species to obstruct darn near everything. You don't say. Let me tell you the story of Bicknell's Thrush. Up until 1993 Bicknell's Thrush was considered a sub species of the Gray Cheeked Thrush, a very common bird. The differences between Bicknell's and Graycheeked Thrushes are so small that "The species cannot be reliable distinguished in the field". Immediately after the invention of Bicknell's Thrush it was declared endangered and then used to slow the reactivation of the Mittersill ski trails in New Hampshire. The thrush worked hard at this but finally the Forest Service held that skiers would not interfere with the nesting of Bicknell's Thrush since the birds don't nest during ski season.
At last account Bicknell's Thrush is hard at work obstructing a wind farm project.

David Starr   ·  May 3, 2011 1:42 PM

so where does darwin fit in here?

newrouter   ·  May 3, 2011 5:18 PM

Been going on for years for obvious political reasons. There are three dark-eyed owls in north america (or at least western north america): the Mexican spotted owl, the spotted owl of pacific northwest fame, and the barred owl common to northern rocky mountain locales. These birds will all interbreed - to the extent that Biologists are killing barred owls that are migrating into Oregon from the northern rockies. Seems that barred owls will tolerate and even thrive in habitat that has been logged but the spotted owl prefers "virgin" timber (though since the enviros destroyed the timber industry in Washington and Oregon, it has been discovered that even the Spotted Owl can subsist in logged habitats)
More examples abound concerning the perfidy of biologists in conjunction with the ESA.

Dennis   ·  May 5, 2011 1:25 PM

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