Small-lizard population taken off threatened, endangered lists

  • Posted: Tuesday, February 12, 2013 1:37 a.m.

A small lizard found only on the Channel Islands in California has spent more than three decades on a list of threatened and endangered species.

But this month, the Fish and Wildlife Service announced plans to take the island night lizard off the list.

Agency officials praised broad efforts to remove nonnative animals from the Channel Islands, home to a host of threatened and endangered species found nowhere else.

“The (animals) really wreaked havoc on those islands’ ecosystems,” said Jane Hendron, public-affairs chief for the Fish and Wildlife office in Carlsbad, Calif.

The island night lizard is found on San Clemente and San Nicolas islands, which are managed by the Navy, and Santa Barbara Island, managed by the National Park Service.

The mostly sedentary lizard tends to seek shelter under dense vegetation and rocks. But years of grazing and ranching had decimated its habitat.

The vegetation began to recover as the Navy and Park Service removed rabbits, pigs, goats, sheep and deer over the years.

Officials cite the lizard’s recovery as a success for the Endangered Species Act and an example of how nonnative species can damage the environment. But the island night lizard’s story also demonstrates that recovery doesn’t happen overnight, Hendron said.

“If a species has slid toward extinction because of a loss of habitat ... it may take years for a habitat to recover,” she said.

Rabbits were removed on Santa Barbara Island more than 30 years ago, said Kate Faulkner, resources-management chief for Channel Islands National Park. The Park Service also removed other nonnative species and cultivated native plants.

“Efforts are ongoing, and they will be for a long time,” Faulkner said. “The impacts to the island from the combination of agriculture and ranching activities and nonnative animals were severe and widespread.”

While there is a long way to go, the Park Service reported that native shrub habitat critical to the island night lizard has doubled since the 1990s.

Similar results were seen on San Nicolas and San Clemente, where animals such as goats, sheep and pigs were removed by the mid-1990s. Feral cats, which ate the lizards, also were removed on San Nicolas by 2010.

San Clemente Island looked more like a moonscape 30 or 40 years ago.

“There were no shrubs to speak of on big swabs of the island,” said Melissa Booker, the Navy’s San Clemente wildlife biologist. “Now the shrubs have come back.”

Booker called the island night lizard an example of one species making a dramatic recovery. She thinks others may follow, saying plant and bird populations also have increased on the island.

Currently, 21 million island night lizards live on San Clemente, officials say. The lizards, averaging 2.6 to 4.3 inches from snout to tail, don’t like to travel far and can live up to 30 years.

With the lizard listed as a threatened species, the agencies had to consult with the Fish and Wildlife Service for any project that could affect its recovery. If the lizard is removed from the list, the agencies would no longer have to go through that administrative process.

“It would streamline the Navy’s ability to train and conduct its mission,” Booker said. But the Navy also would still manage the species, she said.

(Contact Cheri Carlson of the Ventura County Star in California at

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