God's Eye on the Sparrow

Should 2700 little birds be allowed to hold up the reclaiming of the Everglades?

Were it not for this plain-Jane sparrow, the federal court system might be a little less congested. In the past ten years, acres of trees have been sacrificed just to provide paper for the welter of lawsuits and responses filed by the Tribe, the Army Corps of Engineers, South Florida water managers, and environmentalists as they slug it out over how best to provide for the bird.

If the sparrow fled its last redoubt in Everglades National Park, then other imperiled species -- wood storks, snail kites, and the eastern indigo snake, for example -- might be getting the attention they deserve. Even the vanishing Florida panther gets less press than the bird these days.

No more sparrows would also resolve problems among environmentalists and biologists, who can't agree on how to save the songbird. One eminent ecologist, working for the federal government, says that since the bird is on the brink of extinction, the Indians or other wetlands residents who have a problem with measures taken on its behalf should move. "The fundamental question is this," says Stuart Pimm, the ecologist hired by the National Park Service to save the bird. "Do we as a nation believe that nature has sovereignty, or do we let local decisions degrade these national treasures?"

Tribe chairman Billy Cypress claims the government cares more about the bird than the Miccosukees
Steve Satterwhite
Tribe chairman Billy Cypress claims the government cares more about the bird than the Miccosukees
Dexter Lehtinen, the Tribe's passionate advocate, calls the sparrow "an invasive species"
Steve Satterwhite
Dexter Lehtinen, the Tribe's passionate advocate, calls the sparrow "an invasive species"

But another scientist, a seaside sparrow expert, says the birds are Everglades intruders, far from their original range near the southwest Florida coast, not as threatened as the government claims and much more adaptable than Pimm suggests. But if they are on the brink, posits ornithologist Will Post, perhaps a captive breeding program might be in order. And Post knows about extinction. Twenty years ago he was asked to save the Cape Sable sparrow's cousin, the dusky seaside sparrow, from oblivion, but got to its marshy central Florida homeland too late.

And what about the lesson of the dusky? Since the last one keeled over in a cage at Walt Disney World in 1987, there is little evidence to suggest that anyone really misses it.

When all the squabbling is over, the Cape Sable seaside sparrow might be doomed anyway. Twenty years ago more than 6000 birds were counted. Last year just 3200 of the half-ounce critters were counted, all in Everglades National Park. This year's census puts the total at 2704. That's about 84 pounds of bird, total. With a little compression, every single Cape Sable on the planet could be packed into a 55-gallon drum and deep-sixed in the Gulf Stream. And that would put to rest so much controversy.

Or would it?

Legal battles over the bird rage on in several federal courtrooms, where judges issue injunctions and stays that give fieldwork on floodgates and reservoirs a herky-jerky rhythm. And even a scorecard doesn't help much in keeping track of the action. The NRDC is suing the South Florida Water Management District and the Corps. The SFWMD has countersued the NRDC and eight other environmental groups. The Miccosukee Tribe has also sued the Corps, several times.

Wrangling over the sparrow has also produced some colorful and often nasty rhetoric. Conservationist and onetime assistant U.S. Interior Secretary Nathaniel Reed in January 2000 wrote a letter in which he blasted Dexter Lehtinen, the Tribe's attorney, as "the worst proponent of Everglades restoration possible, as your knowledge is faulty, your biases overwhelm any science, your grievances are endless, and your spite is without limit."

In a December 2001 letter to the Interior Department, tribe chairman Cypress said the U.S. Justice Department's failure to stop discriminating against the Indians in favor of the sparrow leaves the agency with "its head in the sand on this issue with only their posterior showing." Less than a month later Cypress fired off a letter to the Corps accusing the agency with mismanaging water deliveries "as a lap dog for the Department of the Interior and its Fish and Wildlife Service."

Sewell, the attorney for the NRDC, says that in impassioned courtroom arguments, he has heard lawyers imply that "there are schoolchildren drowning because of the sparrow. By no means."

Ultimately the fight over the Everglades is about water: how much, when and where, and how clean. And although the sparrow just happened to land in the middle of the battleground, its chief concern is water as well. Too much water disturbs the bird's nesting cycle; too little makes its habitat susceptible to fire and changes in vegetation. For this bird, everything must be just right.

As a metaphor for the least of all creatures, the sparrow predates the current brouhaha. In the Bible, Matthew quotes Jesus telling his disciples of the two birds sold for a farthing, "and one of them shall not fall on the ground without your Father."

But now it is not just God's eye on the sparrow. Everybody is watching.

To gauge the sparrow's importance to the pace and practice of Everglades restoration, and to get closer to the heat generated by debate over the creature, it is instructive to compare chief antagonists on the issue -- Stuart Pimm, the government's lead scientist, and Dexter Lehtinen, the Miccosukees' attorney. They have met, briefly, at Everglades conferences and during courtroom hearings, but never had a conversation. They don't seem to like each other.

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