Last year, we used satellite photos to document unauthorized oil and gas development in habitat for the dunes sagebrush lizard, one of the rarest lizards in North America. The habitat was supposed to be protected by a conservation plan between the Texas Comptroller and the U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service. We questioned whether the plan was truly protecting the lizard, so we used satellite photos from Google Earth Engine to determine whether new development had occurred on lizard habitat. We were stunned to find new oil drilling pads, dirt roads, and other land clearings in protected areas – all of which the comptroller never disclosed to the public.
In response to our findings, the comptroller denied the existence of the new oil pads and roads and defended the conservation plan. It even told the media that “we do not think the Defenders of Wildlife report accurately identified ground disturbances that violate” the conservation plan.
I’m thrilled to now report that because of our investigation, the comptroller has quietly reversed its position about our findings. The comptroller now formally acknowledges that “some participants [in the conservation plan] did not properly notify or report these” disturbances. One participant was apparently “using the wrong maps in their planning” while another simply “failed to notify” the comptroller about its activities.
Even more astonishing is that the comptroller now uses the same technique that we developed to discover the unreported disturbances. We used Google Earth Engine to obtain images of lizard habitat taken by the LANDSAT 8 satellite. Because the satellite scans the entire Earth every 16 days, we were able to determine when new development occurred. We recently learned that the comptroller began using this same technique soon after we described it in an August 2013 report. Specifically, the comptroller started using Google Earth Engine and LANDSAT 8 images “to better identify disturbances” by comparing satellite images every three months to find new oil wells and roads. The comptroller had never mentioned this technique in any of its earlier reports, so we suspect that she learned a trick or two from seeing how we found all the unreported disturbances. Despite these changes in how the comptroller is administering the Texas plan, there is still no proof that the lizard is actually benefitting from the plan. Has its populations increased? Does remediating abandoned drilling sites truly restore lizard habitat? Because there are no clear answers to these and similar questions, we still believe the species warrants the protection of the Endangered Species Act. That’s why we are still in court to hold the U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service accountable for relying on this unproven voluntary conservation plan instead of protecting the lizard under the Act.
Our work on the lizard is just part one of a long-term strategy to use satellite images and other forms of “big data” to independently verify which conservation plans are truly protecting endangered species. Under the U.S. Endangered Species Act, there are hundreds of conservation plans that authorize limited levels of habitat loss in exchange for the promise by developers to offset their impacts. Are developers complying with all of these restrictions? Are the offsets effective for wildlife? No one really knows. The U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service lacks the time and money to answer these questions in most instances, so the duty often falls on groups like Defenders to unearth problems and offer solutions. Fortunately, technological advances like satellite images and Google mapping tools are making this work possible.
Ya-Wei Li, Endangered Species Conservation Director