For the Birds

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

If Post and Lehtinen have "a case to make, they could publish criticism in the top-flight journals in which I publish my work," Pimm writes. "They haven't. Lehtinen rambles on about all kinds of numbers in the hope that I will pay him some attention. I don't.

"He's asking for another committee to talk about the science. Bring it on."

Catfights over birds may be as natural as the Everglades themselves. During the past year and a half of the Clinton administration, "we would spend days in arguments" about the sparrow, recalls University of Miami law professor Mary Doyle, who served as counselor to Interior Department Secretary Bruce Babbitt. "You have a combative tribe, with a sad history and some serious grievances, versus one brown, uncharismatic bird. It is frustrating to listen to, sorting out the science. It has slowed restoration. But if there was an easy way out of this, we'd be beyond it already."

Mike Clary
Bird bander David Okines, in Everglades National Park with student assistant Raquel Marques, is trying to net, measure, and number the world's dwindling population of Cape Sable seaside sparrows
Mike Clary
Bird bander David Okines, in Everglades National Park with student assistant Raquel Marques, is trying to net, measure, and number the world's dwindling population of Cape Sable seaside sparrows

In a contrary opinion, Sewell, the National Resources Defense Council's lawyer, argues that the attention paid to the sparrow's plight has helped speed restoration, since floodgates have been closed, reservoirs opened, and some dikes destroyed to protect nesting sites. "Here is a species saying, 'Accomplish restoration,'" Sewell observes. "If the sparrow is driven to extinction, restoration would probably go slower, because suddenly you wouldn't have to tell Sweetwater they couldn't pump water into the Everglades. Things would just stagnate."

In recent years, perhaps no one has spent more time in the field with the Cape Sable sparrow than Lockwood, the field biologist, who is a professor at the University of California, Santa Cruz, who since 1993 has been studying nesting habits. She has documented the damaging effects of high water and fire on sparrow reproduction as the numbers have steadily declined.

Lockwood remains optimistic. "The principles that will work for the sparrow will work for the other species as well," she says. "The world did not collapse when we lost the dusky, so will it if we lose the Cape Sable? Probably not. But is that an ethical solution, to play God and let it go? The only way I can imagine that happening is by accident."

Lehtinen agrees. "That bird does not have to go extinct," he says. "But we have to get real on single-species management and practice some tough love. The enviros are doing all they can to make [the bird] charismatic. They want to make it everything. They practice Animal Farmequality: Some are more equal than others."

Everglades restoration is huge, and the Cape Sable seaside sparrow is small. But the fate of each may be intertwined for years.

And who can know when or if the sparrow will sing its swan song? The dusky disappeared, but the northern spotted owl is still here, as is the snail darter, a now-renowned little fish that led the U.S. Supreme Court to halt work on a Tennessee dam back in 1978. "Thou wast not born for death, immortal Bird!" Keats wrote of another bird, in another time. To which the sparrow might reply: Tli-zheeeeee!

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