Saving the Collared Lizard: One Man's Trial by Fire

PHOTO: A male collared lizard in Missouris Ozark Mountains.

Alan Templeton was a 13-year-old Boy Scout when he saw his first collared lizard in Missouri's Ozark Mountains. He returned years later with a few advanced degrees to save the lizard that, as he put it, he "fell in love with" on first sight.

All he had to do was burn a mountain, and a few valleys, in a conservation project that many initially thought was crazy. But it worked, and therein lies a great story.

The collared lizard is not your ordinary reptile. It is brightly colored, and Templeton never forgot seeing the curious animal rear up on its hind legs and race two-footed across the hot, dry rock outcropping that stood out from the lush forest around it. They seemed to be everywhere.

So he was a bit startled when a colleague at Washington University in St. Louis told him he was studying the lizard, but was having trouble finding them.

Remembering the days of his youth when he led tours of the lizards' habitat, he told his friend he knew where there were lots of them, Templeton, now a professor of biology at Washington University, said in a telephone interview. He returned to the Ozarks and searched through a series of desert-like habitats, called glades, that had been home to so many collared lizards years earlier, but the colorful animals were nowhere to be found in the area.

In 1987 Templeton transplanted collared lizards to three glades to see if he could repopulate the Ozarks. By 1993 they were still there, but they had not expanded to other glades, even though other rich habitats were no more than 200 feet away. If they remained that isolated, they would probably die out, as others had done before them.

That led to a decade-long "experiment," as Templeton put it, in conservation biology. Every effort to protect, or restore, a critical habitat is an experiment, he said, because not enough facts are known in the beginning, and it's not always clear what the result will be.

One thing did seem clear. Humans had been changing the Ozarks since the first Indians settled in the area, about 10,000 years ago. More recently, some areas had been carved out for ranching, and frequent fires had altered the landscape. And in the 1940s, authorities began controlled burning of forest areas in hopes of reducing the threat of major fires that could wipe out thousands of acres.

But there was something wrong with that picture. That wasn't the way nature had protected the lizard's habitat prior to human occupation. When a fire started, it burned everything. Maybe, Templeton thought, that's the way it should be.

So he, along with colleagues in several other disciplines who had studied the same area, made a radical proposal. Let's burn the mountains and the valleys and everything in between, just like nature did before we came along.

A male collared lizard, photographed by Alan Templeton.

The suggestion was a little like tossing a lighted match into a can of gasoline.

"It was very controversial," he said. "We were getting negative input from people in forestry and some environmental groups who thought burning was a really bad thing."

But the idea slowly caught on, and in the mid-1990s the Missouri Biodiversity Task Force began burning large areas throughout the region, eventually including the three glades where Templeton had reintroduced the lizards.

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