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Notebook Science

Rare breakthrough

(Associated Press/U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service)

Associated Press/Photo by Greg Baker
Associated Press/Photo by Todd Marshall/PA

Science

Rare breakthrough

Feds back a lizard conservation plan proposed by states and oil drillers

The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service took a surprising turn in June when it decided not to list the dunes sagebrush lizard as an endangered species. Agency officials, including Interior Secretary Ken Salazar, said they were already satisfied with the voluntary steps that Texas and New Mexico had taken to protect the lizard, a rare, 3-inch species living amidst an oil and gas drilling boom. U.S. Sen. Tom Udall, D-N.M., praised the decision as "unprecedented in the history of the Endangered Species Act," because it accepted conservation plans made among states, private companies, and landowners as reason enough to believe a threatened animal would not go extinct.

Some conservation groups responded that the Obama administration had "caved to pressure" from the industry. The dunes sagebrush lizard is a spiny, tan reptile that lives among shinnery oak shrubs and sand dunes in Texas and New Mexico. Had the Fish and Wildlife Service declared the lizard endangered, the animal could have blocked drilling activity in the region-a prospect that U.S. Sen. John Cornyn, R-Texas, said threatened 27,000 oilfield jobs in his state.

Under the state-led conservation pacts, New Mexico, Texas, and oil and gas companies would remove some roads, destroy invasive mesquite brush, and avoid disturbing buffer areas within the lizard's 650,000-acre habitat-protecting 88 percent of the animal's range. Udall said the voluntary pacts could be a "model" for how the federal government handles endangered species disputes elsewhere. But it's difficult to say whether the administration's hands-off decision signals a new direction or election-year politics.

Carbon calculators

Researchers studying official carbon dioxide emissions figures from China found a glaring mismatch between national and regional data: The regional figures, composed of emissions reports from 30 provinces, would suggest that China's carbon footprint was 18 percent higher in 2010 than what the central government had reported. That difference, amounting to 1.4 billion metric tons, is greater than the total output of Japan, the world's fourth-largest emitter.

It's unclear whether the higher or lower figure is more accurate, though. The researchers, who reported their findings in Nature Climate Change, said the discrepancy was largely due to how Chinese officials reported coal burning and manufacturing activity. Local officials, they suggested, are likely motivated to report high economic activity within their own regions, while central government officials underestimate figures in order to appear environmentally friendly on the global stage. -Daniel James Devine

Evolving textbooks

South Korean critics of Darwinism won a small victory by convincing several publishers in the Asian nation to update their science textbooks, removing or revising disputed examples of horse evolution and references to Archaeopteryx, a dinosaur some Darwinists believe is the ancestor of birds. Education and science officials gave publishers the option of changing texts after receiving a petition from the Society for Textbook Revise, an organization Nature reported to be an independent offshoot of the Korean Association for Creation Research. Evolution-defending scientists in South Korea said they were caught off guard by the textbook campaign. They've organized a task force to try to reverse any revisions. A 2009 poll found one-third of South Koreans do not believe in Darwinism. -Daniel James Devine