A two-decade legal fight to protect a squat lizard with dragon-like head spines from urban encroachment in Southern California took a new turn this week.
The Center for Biological Diversity has petitioned the California Fish and Game Commission to list the flat-tailed lizard as an endangered species – three years after federal wildlife authorities denied special protections for one of the rarest and most legally contested reptiles in the United States.
The lizard -- 3 1/2 inches long and a voracious consumer of harvester ants -- has been the focus of court battles since it was first proposed for listing in 1993 as a federally endangered species in its historic haunts in Arizona, California and Baja California, Mexico.
“A majority of the habitat left for this imperiled species is in Southern California, so the state has an obligation to safeguard it,” Ileene Anderson, a senior scientist with the center, said in an interview. “State protection will give this lizard a fighting chance at survival.”
The first waves of significant habitat loss occurred in the late 1930s and the ‘40s and ‘50s as a result of an agriculture boom in what once was a wide-open treeless landscape.
Later, habitat was fragmented and destroyed by roads, off-road vehicles, light industry, urban development and renewable energy facilities. The lizard’s primary prey, harvester ants, have also been hard hit by pesticides and competition with invasive Argentine ants.
Today, remnant populations of flat-tailed horned lizards cling to existence in Riverside and Imperial counties, where power poles and exotic palm trees favored by Sonoran Desert landscapers have become perches used by small falcons to spot prey and launch hunting sorties.