A little cooperation is going a long way. If only the two federal agencies with such colossal power over Everglades restoration had talked to each other sooner ...
The U.S. Army Corps of Engineers and the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service (FWS) announced Friday they are "taking additional steps under the Endangered Species Act to restore balance to the Florida Everglades ecosystem and help reverse decades-long population declines of the endangered Cape Sable seaside sparrow."
"We’re moving forward with restoration efforts and operational modifications that will ultimately provide beneficial conditions to the many species that call the Everglades home," said Col. Jason Kirk, U.S. Army Corps of Engineers Jacksonville District commander.
All that is cover-your-backside code for ... we've finally figured out a way to stop using the shy, tiny bird as a scapegoat for the misery the FWS interpretation of the Endangered Species Act has caused.
The 5-inch Cape Sable seaside sparrow has been listed as an endangered species ever since the Endangered Species Act -- then called the Endangered Species Preservation Act -- went into effect in 1967.
Protecting it has come at a considerable cost in South Florida -- the only place in the world the bird is said to live naturally. Victims include Everglades National Park, Everglades restoration efforts, Florida Bay, the Miccosukee Indians, and vegetable farmers, all of them at the mercy of regulations meant to save the bird from extinction.
The bottom line is, the fight over the Everglades is about water: how much and when and where and how clean. Although the sparrow just happened to land in the middle of the battleground, its chief concern is also water. Too much of it disturbs the bird's nesting cycle; too little leaves its habitat susceptible to fire and changes in vegetation. For Cape Sable seaside sparrows, everything has to be just right.
These steps the Corps and FWS are taking are outlined in a new biological opinion on the Corps’ Everglades Restoration Transition Plan (ERTP), implemented in 2012 to guide improved management of water flows in the Everglades. See the "Everglades Restoration Transition Plan Biological Opinion" in the attachment below.
"The new biological opinion will guide the Corps and partners in the Everglades restoration effort in better managing water in ways that improve habitat essential to the Cape Sable seaside sparrow," said the agencies' joint press release.
Actions called for in the biological opinion include operational modifications and expediting restoration initiatives already planned for the southern portion of the Everglades ecosystem to aid in providing suitable nesting habitat for the sparrow.
In spite of what environmentalists tell you, water is flowing south out of Lake Okeechobee. And a lot of it. At Gov. Rick Scott's urging, last year the South Florida Water Management District moved 700,000 acre feet of water south. But not much of it can find its way to Everglades National Park.
Since 1999, at the direction of the Fish and Wildlife Service, the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers has closed very large water control gates along Tamiami Trail leading into Everglades National Park, preventing their use from November to July every year supposedly to protect the sparrow. This has parched the park and Florida Bay of much needed clean fresh water.
The South Florida Water Management District has been screaming about this forever, or so it seems. Closing the gates each year cuts in half the volume of clean water that can be moved south into the park and eventually into Florida Bay.
Closure also causes water to back up in the conservation areas north of the park, which endangers wildlife and prevents more water from being moved south out of Lake Okeechobee.
Measures in the "biological opinion" just announced will allow the movement of this water southward under the Tamiami Trail One-Mile Bridge flowing through the Everglades and into Florida Bay in ways that avoid prolonged flooding of the sparrow’s habitat during the nesting season. They will also provide much-needed fresh water to benefit wildlife such as American crocodiles, West Indian manatees, sea turtles, dolphins, a variety of bird species and game fish.
This is all part of a broad collaboration between the FWS, the Corps, the U.S. Geological Survey, the National Park Service and many others to save the ground-nesting Cape Sable seaside sparrow and still meet water management needs.
The press release claims "the actions reflect the complexity of restoration requirements across the Everglades and the commitment of local, state and federal partners to find creative ways to achieve long-term restoration and conservation."
Did they really have to wait three years to announce they had some kind of plan -- any plan -- to compromise?
“Although the Cape Sable seaside sparrow is on the brink of extinction, we believe with the timely and coordinated action of partners, we can save this and other imperiled wildlife for the long term,” said Larry Williams, the FWS’s state supervisor for ecological services in Florida.
Prior to Hurricane Andrew in 1992, there were 6,576 sparrows inhabiting Everglades National Park. Hurricane Andrew was followed by several wet years and high discharges of water through water control structures, causing several years of poor conditions for the sparrow. This reduced the sparrow’s ability to recover from the impact of the hurricane and its total population declined to 3,312 in 1993.
FWS began consulting with the Corps on the Everglades Restoration Transition Plan in 2015. Due to many factors, including loss of habitat, the sparrow’s population dropped to 2,720 in 2014. The agency claims, after one of the wettest nesting periods on record, current preliminary results for 2016 indicate the population may have decreased to approximately 2,400 birds, lowest on record.
As a result of this interagency collaboration and biological opinion, the Corps has committed to these things:
- Provide habitat conditions that will continue to facilitate sparrow breeding in areas where the existing habitat is of better quality.
- Provide habitat conditions that will allow the sparrow to successfully breed and recruit in currently degraded areas.
- Promote sparrow population resilience by identifying additional areas of habitat expansion or movement that may occur with implementation of water management projects and the onset of sea level rise.
- Monitor and demonstrate that successful sparrow breeding and recruitment is occurring in response to the implementation of management actions.
Water isn't the only threat to the ground-nesting Cape Sable seaside sparrow. The birds and their nestlings are ideal prey for snakes.
Incidentally, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service is no longer making a stink about SFWMD's treatment of the Everglade snail kite.
In fairness to the FWS and the Corps, you can understand why they might treat the sparrow and the snail kite differently. They have to tread carefully: In August 2013, Duke University scientist Stuart Pimm and the Center for Biological Diversity filed a lawsuit against the two agencies. At issue was the continuing release of water flooding the Cape Sable seaside sparrow's habitat. The lawsuit alleged the practice was in violation of the Endangered Species Act.
Reach Nancy Smith at firstname.lastname@example.org or at 228-282-2423. Twitter: @NancyLBSmith