Really for the Birds

A weird government plan to help save an endangered species winds up threatening to defile the Everglades

During the six-week breeding season of the endangered Cape Sable seaside sparrow, the male bird stakes out his territory (roughly 120 square yards of Everglades wetlands) and begins chirping a song that he hopes will attract a female while warding off other males.

If he's lucky, a female will drop by and give him the once-over. Assuming she likes the area (and doesn't find the male repulsive), she'll build a nest in the shrubs a few inches off the ground. Then she and her beau will do that birdie thing, and presto -- next thing you know you've got eggs and, soon, baby sparrows.

This year the little birds' mating ritual nearly included a decidedly unnatural and bulky partner -- a giant, multimillion-dollar rubber doughnut encircling their nesting area, courtesy of the federal government. The bizarre plan, devised in the final weeks of March by the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers, was an act of desperation designed to save the sparrows from possible extinction -- and to get government officials out of an embarrassing jam.

Cape Sable seaside sparrows, which for the past 31 years have been officially listed as endangered, live their precarious existence in the smallest habitat of any bird in North America -- almost exclusively within the boundaries of Everglades National Park and the Big Cypress National Preserve. Of particular concern to scientists working with the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service is a flock of less than 300 that mate in the north-central part of Everglades National Park, west of the Shark Valley slough. If this group does not have a successful breeding season this year, experts say, the entire species could be gone within two decades.

That flock's mating area happens to be part of a dumping ground for water collected by the system of canals built by the army corps to drain Everglades wetlands and provide flood protection. For the most part, the canals south of Lake Okeechobee divert to the western (uninhabited) part of the Everglades water that would normally flow toward the eastern (inhabited) part.

After several wet years -- capped by this season's El Nino winter rains -- the canal system was filled to capacity. If more rain were to fall this spring, the corps and the South Florida Water Management District would be forced to literally open the floodgates and release the overflow. That excess water could go in one of two directions: southwest into the sparrows' nesting grounds (ruining the chances for breeding) or southeast toward an area occupied by several hundred homes.

Either possibility, say army corps officials, would be unlawful. Flooding out the birds would violate the federal Endangered Species Act. Flooding out the residents would damage or destroy their property without their consent. "We were on the horns of a dilemma," recalls Richard Bonner, deputy district engineer for the corps' regional Jacksonville office. "There was no way to win."

With time running short on the sparrows' nesting period, officials from the White House's Council on Environmental Quality (CEQ) prodded the army corps to come up with a solution that would avert a public relations disaster. So the corps offered to do what it does best --- build a levee. Or more descriptively, a rubber doughnut.

Outlined in a six-point plan, the corps proposed to construct a barrier around a four-square-mile area used last year by the sparrows for nesting. Four feet in diameter, a tube would be inflated with water, making it heavy enough to act as a dike. Twenty-five diesel-powered pumps would be evenly spaced around its perimeter to remove from the nesting grounds any water that would seep under the barrier. To avoid disturbing the sparrows, the pumps were to be equipped with mufflers that would make them as quiet as hospital generators. As an alternative to diesel engines, which would need refueling every two days, the corps also offered to install electric pumps, which would have required ground cables miles long.

The tubes, painted in unobtrusive earth tones, were to be transported by airboats or swamp buggies, even though the site in question is a designated wilderness area and is off-limits to such vehicles. The levee would have been constructed by hand over the course of three to four weeks, leaving just enough time for the sparrows to breed before the rainy season kicked in.

Estimated cost for materials alone? Somewhere in the range of five million dollars.

"It was ridiculous," scoffs University of Tennessee ecologist Stuart Pimm, who studies the Cape Sable seaside sparrow for the U.S. Department of the Interior. "There is an answer to this sort of problem, and it is not big mechanical barriers."

Pimm returned from a trip to Brazil on March 20 and found urgent messages on his answering machine from the White House's CEQ. The next day, at his first opportunity while traveling to the Georgia coast for a field trip with his students, Pimm pulled over at a McDonald's for a conference call arranged by the CEQ soliciting his opinion of the rubber levee. "If all else fails, would this help?" he recalls being asked. "Yes, this would be better than nothing," he replied. But Pimm also criticized the size of the proposed enclosed area as too small and worried about damage caused by construction.

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