Northern sagebrush lizard (Sceloporus graciosus)

Sagebrush lizard
Northern sagebrush lizard missing part of its tail
Category: Reptiles
Family: Iguanidae - Iguanids
Ecosystems: Shrubsteppe
State status: Candidate
Vulnerability to climate change (More details)

Moderate-
High

If you see this species, please share your observation using the WDFW wildlife reporting form. Providing detailed information such as a photo and exact coordinates will improve the confidence and value of this observation to WDFW species conservation and management.

This lizard's status is of concern in Washington based on the species’ rarity and its dependency on sand dunes in the Columbia Basin. Greater than 70 percent of this habitat type has been lost since the 1970s. 

Description and Range

Physical description

Underside close up of a male northern sagebrush lizard held in a hand
Mature males have bright blue patches on the sides of the abdomen and blue mottling on the throat.

This is a small (less than 2.4 inches snout to vent length) gray or brown lizard with a mid-dorsal stripe, two light colored stripes on the back and sides, and a series of dark chevron-shaped blotches between the stripes. The belly is white. Typically, the axilla (arm-pit) is orange or rust colored. On females, this coloration may extend onto the neck and sides of the body. Mature males have enlarged post anal scales, a swollen tail base, bright blue patches on the margins of the abdomen and blue mottling on the throat. Females may have some blue-tinged scales on the margin of the abdomen.

Hatchlings (about one inch snout to vent length) and juveniles are similar in appearance to adults but do not have any blue pigmentation on the belly.

The side-blotched lizard is similar in size and appearance to the sagebrush lizard but has a gular fold, a black spot on the body behind the front forelimbs, and a mottled or spotted dorsal pattern.

Sideview close up of a female northern sagebrush lizard held in a hand
Note the orange colored "armpits" on this female northern sagebrush lizard found in Ferry County.

The western fence lizard is similar in appearance but the adults are larger (greater than 2.4 inches snout to vent length), have large spiny dorsal scales, keeled yellow scales on the posterior surface of the thighs, and do not have orange or rust colored axilla. The entire throat of the mature male fence lizard is blue and the blue belly-patches are distinctly outlined in black.

For more details about northern sagebrush lizard, see the Washington Herp Atlas.

Ecology and life history

Northern sagebrush lizards are associated with vegetated sand dunes and associated sandy habitats that support shrubs and have large areas of bare ground. Their habitat is being fragmented by various factors, degraded by weeds, and converted to agriculture.

A sagebrush lizard basks in the warm sun on a gray boulder
Sagebrush lizard basks in the sun on a boulder National Park Service National Park Service

Northern sagebrush lizards tend to be common where they occur. They are active on warm, sunny days from early April through October.

Typically, they can be seen on the ground at the edge of shrubs and other vegetation that provide cover from predators and relief from mid-day heat. They can also be observed interacting with other sagebrush lizards under the canopy of shrubs. In cattle-grazed habitats, shrubs may no longer have the lower branches and, therefore, provide less suitable retreats for these lizards.

At night, on rainy days, and on cool cloudy days, sagebrush lizards move underground or shelter under cover objects such as rocks and woody debris. They prey on small insects and other invertebrates such as spiders. Eggs are laid in early summer. Hatchlings appear in early August.

Overwintering habitat has not been studied in Washington but is likely within sand dune habitat.

Geographic range

In Washington, northern sagebrush lizards occur in the Columbia Plateau and Okanogan ecoregions where they occur on sand dunes and associated sandy areas.

This map from the Washington Herp Atlas illustrates the known distribution of northern sagebrush lizard in Washington as of 2016.

Sagebrush lizard state distribution map:all eastside counties but Ferry,Stevens,Pend Oreille,Spokane,Kittitas,Asotin,Skamania
Washington Herp Atlas (2017)

For a map of range-wide distribution and conservation status for this species, check out NatureServe Explorer

Climate vulnerability

Sensitivity to climate change

Moderate-
High

Little to no information exists regarding sensitivity of the sagebrush lizard to climate change. It is likely that their overall sensitivity is greater due to habitat specialization (i.e., vegetated sand dunes), which are sensitive to invasive grasses or altered fire regimes that eliminate habitat. Further, this species is a egg-layer that could be influenced by soil moisture patterns at oviposition sites; but lack of data on typical oviposition sites makes any prediction of potential changes highly uncertain.

Confidence: Low

Exposure to climate change

Moderate-
High

  • Altered fire regimes
  • Increased invasive weeds >Temperature changes may affect diet of local populations >Change in wind patterns may alter dune habitats
Confidence: Moderate

Regulations

Licenses and permits

Be advised that collection of this species is only permitted under a WDFW Scientific Collection Permit for research and educational activities.

Conservation

This species is identified as a Species of Greatest Conservation Need (SGCN) under the State Wildlife Action Plan (SWAP). SGCN-classified species include both those with and without legal protection status under the Federal or State Endangered Species programs, as well as game species with low populations. The WDFW SWAP is part of a nationwide effort by all 50 states and five U.S. territories to develop conservation action plans for fish, wildlife and their natural habitats—identifying opportunities for species' recovery before they are imperiled and more limited.
This species is identified as a Priority Species under WDFW's Priority Habitat and Species Program. Priority species require protective measures for their survival due to their population status, sensitivity to habitat alteration, and/or recreational, commercial, or tribal importance. The PHS program is the agency's main means of sharing fish and wildlife information with local governments, landowners, and others who use it to protect priority habitats for land use planning.

Conservation Threats and Actions Needed

  • Resource information collection needs
    • Threat: Lack of information about status. This species is associated with sand dunes. Loss and alteration of sand dune habitat continues to occur throughout the Columbia Basin. Therefore, sagebrush lizard population must be monitored to make sure they are persisting.
    • Action Needed: Monitor populations to make sure their habitat remains suitable and the population persists.
  • Fish and wildlife habitat loss or degradation
    • Threat: Sand dune conversion to agriculture. Excessive livestock grazing can also degrade habitat by removing too much vegetation and damaging the lower limbs of shrubs. 
    • Action Needed: Protect sand dune habitat.  
  • Invasive and other problematic species
    • Threat: Stabilization of sand dunes and loss of bare soils interspersed with vegetation. Non-native invasive species, especially cheatgrass, are stabilizing sand dunes and altering the habitat so that it is not suitable for sagebrush lizards.
    • Action Needed: Prevent land use practices that increase non-native invasive species. Where these plants already occur, find ways to remove and/or prevent expansion.

See the Climate vulnerability section for information about the threats posed by climate change to this species.

Resources

References

Green, G. A., K. B. Livezey, and R. L. Morgan. 2001. Habitat selection by Northern Sagebrush Lizards (Sceloporus graciosus graciosus) in the Columbia Basin, Oregon. Northwestern Naturalist 82(3): 111-115.

Hallock, L. A., R. D. Haugo and R. Crawford. 2007. Conservation Strategy for Washington Inland Sand Dunes. Unpublished report from Washington Department of Natural Resources’ Natural Heritage Program (Olympia), Report 2007-05.

Nussbaum, R. A., E. D. Brodie, Jr., and R.M. Storm. 1983. Amphibians and Reptiles of the Pacific Northwest. University of Idaho Press, Moscow, Idaho. 332 pp.

Stebbins, R. C. 1985. A Field Guide to Western Reptiles and Amphibians, 2nd Edition. The Peterson Field Guide Series. Houghton Mifflin Company, Boston. 336 pp.

Storm, R. M. and W. P. Leonard (Coordinating Editors). 1995. Reptiles of Washington and Oregon. Seattle Audubon Society, The Trailside Series, Seattle, Washington. 176 pp.

WDFW publications

PHS Program

WDFW educational resources

Other resources