For the Birds

If only the endangered Cape Sable seaside sparrow were a panda. Or had big mournful eyes, like Bambi. Or could project just a little more personality.

"It's not like they're gorgeous," field biologist Julie Lockwood concedes. "And they are not easy to see anyway, since they hardly come [up] above the grass. They are just little birds, going about their bird lives. And though everyone else has given them so much meaning, they have no clue."

No clue, that is, to the pivotal role they play in the largest and most complex environmental engineering project in U.S. history, the $8 billion plan to restore the Everglades. The goal of the project, which will take years to complete, is nothing less than restoring a more natural water flow to an imperiled ecosystem that has been nearly choked to death by dikes, canals, pollution, and abuse. And since every known Cape Sable seaside sparrow on earth lives inside the Everglades ecosystem, the tiny bird is viewed by some of those involved as the biggest obstacle to the project's success.

Never, perhaps, has a creature so small been saddled with so much weight in a matter so momentous: the fate of the only park in the hemisphere to be designated an "International Bio-sphere Reserve and a World Heritage Site" by the United Nations. Really, it's a wonder this bird can get off the ground at all.

On July 3, the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers signed off on an interim plan to protect the bird by juggling water levels near its nesting grounds. But Richard Bonner, a corps deputy district engineer, acknowledges that the scheme is "something we sort of compromised on" and ''not the best of all worlds." Translation: No one's happy.

Chief among those with ruffled feathers are the Miccosukees, a famously combative Indian tribe that lives in the Everglades; it is fiercely proud of having never surrendered to federal forces after being chased into the swamp during the 19th-century Seminole Wars. Miccosukee Tribe Chairman Billy Cypress charges that government policies designed to save the bird from extinction are "dooming the tribe to cultural genocide as the sparrow is now worth more than the Miccosukee."

Some Miami-Dade County residents believe the bird stands in the way of permanent flood control. Sweetwater mayor José Diaz suggests that measures to help the sparrow could pose a drowning danger to humans. "The bottom line is that I want my kids to see the Everglades," Diaz says. "But if people are getting wiped out, then what's more important? The bird has wings, for God's sake."

Many anglers and hunters blame the sparrow for damage to Lake Okeechobee, since water managers have begun to regulate water levels to protect nesting grounds to the south. "If it's a choice between the lake and the bird," environmental activist Wayne Nelson has told the press, "let's drown the bird."

Whoa. Comments such as these make defenders livid. "The sparrow is trying to lead us down the Yellow Brick Road of Everglades restoration," snaps Brad Sewell, an attorney with the National Resources Defense Council (NRDC). "The bird is simply telling us what should be done for the entire ecosystem. And if the bird is complicating your life bureaucratically, well, I don't have much sympathy for that."

The sparrow is now as rare as it is reclusive. Only about 2700 of the olive-backed birds are left of a population that has teetered on the edge of extinction almost since the day it was discovered down in the tall grass 84 years ago. The sparrow was included when the original list of endangered species was drawn up in 1967, listed when the federal Endangered Species Act (ESA) took effect in 1973, and it remains there today. (Originally listed as a separate species, the Cape Sable was reclassified a subspecies of seaside sparrows in 1973.)

Despite its diminutive size and a shyness that has ensured few people have ever seen the feathered mite, the sparrow's inclusion as one of 387 animals, including 78 birds, listed under the ESA makes it a major player in the fractious drama over restoration. Under federal law, the birds are immune from anyone or anything that might "harass, harm, pursue, hunt, shoot, wound, kill, trap, capture, or collect" them or their habitat. The corps' Bonner describes the ESA as "a trump act. It trumps other legislation. It is a powerful tool." In other words, this little sparrow rules the roost.

But that has not stopped many powerful players in the Everglades replumbing project from daydreaming about how much easier life would be if all 2700 Cape Sables flew off into oblivion. Just imagine: Without this bite-sized bird, the plan to repair the Everglades might be much further along. Dikes might have been removed, floodgates opened, and water rerouted so that plant and animal life could flourish.

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 Miccosukees, the Army Corps of Engineers, South Florida water managers, and environmentalists as they have debated 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 snakes, for example -- might be getting the attention they deserve. Even the vanishing Florida panther gets less press than the bird these days.

An end to the sparrow 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?"

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 he arrived in 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 the 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. The National Resources Defense Council 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 U.S. Interior Assistant 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 know-ledge 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 discrimination 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 of mismanaging water deliveries "as a lap dog for the Department of the Interior and its Fish and Wildlife Service."

Sewell, the NRDC attorney, says that in impassioned courtroom arguments, he has heard lawyers imply that "there are schoolchildren drowning because of the sparrow." That is not happening, he adds, "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 also water. 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 have never had a conversation. They don't seem to like each other.

At first glance, Pimm and Lehtinen appear similar. Both are bulky, middle-aged, cocksure hard-chargers, educated and smart, whose ambition and competitiveness can often resemble arrogance. Each has absolute confidence in the correctness of his position. And on the sparrow, those positions could not be more different.

Pimm, who is 53 years old, is a high-profile academic who has published two books (the modestly titled The World According to Pimm, McGraw-Hill, 2001, is his latest) and scores of scientific papers on endangered species and ecosystems. Coming up with a plan to save the sparrow is not his only gig. With a gaggle of aides and graduate students, Pimm roams the globe, overseeing study projects in the Brazilian rainforest, on the Hawaiian honeycreeper, the spotted owl in Oregon, elephants in Africa, and the mongoose in Madagascar. When Pimm is lured from one prestigious school to another -- as he was this year when he left the University of Tennessee to become a professor of conservation biology at Columbia University -- his entourage and projects go with him.

Paid $90,000 a year to assess the plight of the sparrow and plot its survival, Pimm sees the bird as "a flagship species" that indicates the health of the ecosystem. It is also a test. "If we can't save a bird that lives entirely on a federal preserve," Pimm asks rhetorically, "how can we save anything?"

When in South Florida, Pimm works in shorts and bare feet in a rented townhouse condominium in Key Largo, often at his late-model laptop computer while seated at a big desk on an aerie-like patio that opens onto a canopy of gumbo-limbo trees. A naturalized U.S. citizen, Pimm was born in Derbyshire, England, and still talks in the plummy tones of his Oxford undergraduate days.

"We are losing the sparrow because of massive mismanagement of water," he says, flipping open his computer to show a satellite photo of Florida that contrasts areas of wet and dry. "Everyone agrees that restoring the natural flow from northwest to southeast is the only way to save the Everglades."

While Lehtinen and the tribe make routine expressions about caring for the Everglades, Pimm says, they are also insistent that water should not be moved from west to east until residents of the east Everglades are protected by flood controls authorized by Congress in 1992. In the face of the sparrow's imminent peril, that position is "absurd," Pimm sniffs.

Some 300 homes have been built west of Krome Avenue, officially the Everglades, but Pimm declines to speculate about the tribe's motives in supporting the residents of the controversial 8.5 Square Mile Area, a sort of West Bank squatter settlement. Pimm and other environmentalists insist that those residents must be bought out and relocated before natural water flows are restored. Some critics have suggested that the tribe may be looking at more development near its gambling casino at Krome Avenue and SW Eighth Street and that water would threaten those plans.

Indeed, the Miccosukees recently alarmed environmentalists by quietly buying 223 acres of land near the casino that was earmarked as a flood-control reservoir. Cypress has declined comment on any development plans, and so too does Lehtinen. "You have to ask the chairman [Cypress] about that," he says.

But Lehtinen will talk -- bluntly -- about Pimm and the sparrow. "He is an egotistical philosopher king, running a shell game with a lot of B.S.," Lehtinen declares. Of the bird, Lehtinen says, "It's an invasive species, living in a degraded habitat. This is a whole bogus deal from the get-go."

The adjective most often applied to Lehtinen over the years is feisty. He looks like a man who wakes up eager to go ten rounds. His face bears disfiguring shrapnel scars from the Vietnam War, where he served as an Army lieutenant, and his style is frontal assault.

Married to U.S. Rep. Ileana Ros-Lehtinen and a former state senator himself, Lehtinen fired one of the first volleys in the battle of the Everglades when, as a U.S. attorney in Miami in 1988, he sued the state of Florida for failing to enforce its own pollution standards in permitting corporate sugar growers to pump dirty water back into the ecosystem. The 1991 settlement of the case, in which the state agreed to build filtering marshes paid for in part by Big Sugar, signaled the start of the Everglades cleanup.

On a recent Saturday morning, Lehtinen, who is 55 years old, shows up at a delicatessen near his Kendall office in an open-collar dress shirt carrying a sheaf of court transcripts, depositions, and scientific studies. Between mouthfuls of fried eggs and grits, he rummages through the papers to buttress his arguments against foes he labels "the enviros and the Endangered Species Act nuts."

"Do you know that the enviros have actually sued in the name of the bird?" he begins, whipping his glasses off to fix a reporter with an intensity that invites no response. "They made the bird a plaintiff in a lawsuit! That is so silly."

But it is not the silliness that most galls Lehtinen. No, what really infuriates Lehtinen and his chief client, the Miccosukees, is what he calls Pimm's poor science in support of claims that the bird's numbers are declining.

"They are not doing anything for that bird," Lehtinen says. "But it is politically useful. They are using it and the Endangered Species Act as an excuse to gain regulatory control of the water management system. That is the enviros' goal: to control water delivery themselves."

For all of their differences -- to say nothing of their personal animosity for each other -- Pimm and Lehtinen agree on the ultimate aim of this squabble: clean water and an Everglades ecosystem that resembles the one Marjory Stoneman Douglas described in The Everglades: River of Grass. But the restoration project is stunningly complex, impossibly long-term, and no sure thing to succeed. Stuart J. Appelbaum, the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers chief in charge of the whole project, told the Washington Post in June that he had no idea if it would work.

Thus, it is not surprising that a single issue dominates the debate. And the conundrum posed by the sparrow is real, involving the movement of water, avian science, politics, and the long-simmering resentment of the tribe.

"Historically," Pimm grants, "I understand why the Miccosukees have no great love for the Interior Department. But the sparrow cannot be sacrificed."

To protect the sparrow from high water, which can wash out the springtime nests the birds build just inches above the ground in clumps of grass, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service has issued a biological opinion, based in part on Pimm's studies, that requires water to be impounded in conservation area 3A, north of the strip of land along Tamiami Trail where most of the 500-member tribe lives. That, according to tribe scientists, floods out some 88,000 acres used for tribal ceremonies and hunting grounds, as well as the critical habitat of the snail kite, a hawk-like bird that is also endangered.

"It's like in Vietnam," Lehtinen fumes. "They want to destroy the Everglades in order to save it."

Pimm and other environmentalists practice what Lehtinen derides as "single-species management," he says, a slavish attention to one animal that ignores the larger issues. And besides, Lehtinen adds, he has never even laid eyes on this sparrow. And he has looked. Between courtroom skirmishes and appearances before congressional subcommittees, he and sparrow expert Will Post went out "slogging through the Everglades," says Lehtinen, a veteran of sawgrass camping trips who has twice been bitten by poisonous snakes. "And we didn't see it."

True, Ammodramus maritimus mirabilis is hard to see. Although it is one of the largest sparrows, the Cape Sable is only six inches from beak to tail, and it sticks low to the ground.

After Pimm remarked in an interview that no one would ever write an ode to a seaside sparrow, someone did. It is not Keatsian.

"And now not flood nor fire can distract me/From soppy verse," Tom Fucigna, a biologist with a Boynton Beach consulting firm, waxed. "For there's no fate worse/Than extinction without poetry to fly on."

But alas, the sparrow is no nightingale, either. Here's how various bird guides transcribe its buzzy, insect-like song:

Tli-zheeeeee -- The Sibley Guide to Birds.

Cutcut, zhe-eeeeeeee -- Peterson's Field Guide to the Birds.

Tuptup zhe-eeeeeee -- Audubon Handbook, Eastern Birds.

The sparrow is not a major cog in the food chain. It eats insects, and its young or eggs may occasionally be eaten by snakes or rats. It has almost zero potential for tourism promotion, no commercial use as bait or snack food, and would not make a companionable pet.

This sparrow epitomizes low profile. It is so small, so shy, and so unspectacular that even if its numbers were great, few would notice. All six areas where the bird is known to exist are in marshy grassland prairies, inhospitable and even legally inaccessible to humans. Serious birders hoping to catch a glimpse of the Cape Sable cannot just go tromping off into the sedge and sawgrass where they live. Instead, they must get up early and park along the main road in Everglades National Park, hoping for a glimpse at several hundred yards when the birds dart up above the grass.

Much about the bird remains a mystery. "The controversy surrounding the existence and causes of a global decline in the sparrow is borne from the scientific uncertainty surrounding almost every facet of the biology of this difficult-to-observe subspecies," wrote a panel of ornithologists appointed three years ago to review the literature on the bird.

One person who does get up-close is David Okines, who has spent the past several springs trying to catch and tag every Cape Sable in Everglades National Park. On a recent weekday morning, Okines rises before dawn and, with Brazilian graduate student Raquel Marques, 26 years old, drives a few miles down the main road from his temporary housing inside the park to an area just east of Mahogany Hammock. "These are very finicky birds," says Okines, a 42-year-old professional birdbander recruited by Pimm through the British Trust for Ornithology. "Last year, fire went through this plot, so it gave us the ideal opportunity to see how they would come back."

Shouldering small backpacks, Okines picks up a tape recorder, Marques grabs a rolled-up mist net, and they walk out into the waist-high grass. The rainy season has not yet started, and the ground is carpeted by dry, flaky periphyton, a spongy plant. The temperature rises with the sun, but there are no mosquitoes. After a few minutes' hike, Okines snaps on the tape recorder, which emits a raspy call that repeats over and over. Suddenly a small, dark bird flies up briefly from the grass and just as quickly disappears.

But both Okines and Marques spot the bird immediately, and Marques is already unfurling the net, a tight mesh of fine thread. When the net is up -- strung between two aluminum poles as if for a volleyball game in hostile terrain -- Okines drops the squawking tape recorder on the ground downwind of the net, and the two researchers move a few yards away.

Minutes later, the bird surfaces again, heading for what sounds like a territorial interloper. And then another bird flies up, weakly, and Okines rushes toward it. "A fledgling," he says, cupping the young sparrow gently in his hand. Now Marques and Okines walk through the grass and drive the other bird toward the net. The sparrow hits the mesh and is entrapped in the cord.

The two birds, which turn out to be a mother and child, offer a jackpot of data. From his backpack, Okines lays out a series of instruments that allows him to weigh the birds; take measurements of their beaks, wings, and overall length; and then, with a dollop of Superglue, affix to their filament-thin legs four bands that assign the sparrows permanent numbers and mark the date they were caught and examined. To aid a study being run by a Brazilian colleague, Marques checks the birds for parasites.

"These sparrows occupy such a fine niche in the world," says Okines, who grew up in Hastings, England, wanting to do exactly this work. "They have to have the right kind of grass, the right water levels to nest, the right size territory. But they are wonderful birds."

Indeed, up-close, the sparrow is no longer dark and nondescript but a colorful sprite of intricate detail. Its olive back is distinctly streaked with varying hues of gray and brown, while the white canvas of its breast is marked by vertical black stripes. Over each eye, the sparrow wears a dash of brilliant yellow, and a patch of yellow shows up again on the edge of the wing. The eyes are brown, and dark whiskers jut from each side of its alabaster throat. Full-grown, a Cape Sable seaside sparrow weighs little more than half an ounce. But in miniature, they are as spectacular as eagles.

Although not gregarious animals, the sparrows aren't bores, according to scientists who have hung out with them. "They are like someone you see at a party just listening to everyone else. They seem shy at first," observes ornithologist Julie Lockwood. "But once you engage them in conversation, they will talk your ear off."

And what do they say? Answers Lockwood: "'Leave me alone.'"

But what are the sparrows doing here in the middle of the Everglades? After all, they were first spotted near, and named after, Cape Sable, a southwestern coastal marshland at least 25 miles away. Nor is this seaside sparrow beside the sea.

Lockwood supposes that despite its moniker, the bird may well have always lived on what is now park land. "No one surveyed inland until 1954," she says, "so there is a big gap in our knowledge."

But the scientists favored by the tribe say the bird most likely migrated east from its original range. That's why Lehtinen calls the sparrow "an invasive species." By protecting it in the park, Lehtinen says, "all you're doing is growing a population to drown it later."

Pimm insists that where the bird is now is of no consequence. "Lehtinen almost certainly knows what the Endangered Species Act says about the purpose of the act," he says. "[The act] intends to protect not just the species but the ecosystem. Indeed, destroying ecosystems is the way in which almost all endangered species get that way."

Pimm is an expert in endangered species and an editor of Science, but he is not an ornithologist. And he does make mistakes.

In 1998, Pimm touched off a firestorm among Everglades combatants when he announced that the sparrow population seemed to be rebounding after water was diverted. And he offered some numbers representing a preliminary head count. But those early numbers proved to be wrong, and Pimm had to retract his assessment of recovery.

That publicized error led the Miccosukees to hire Will Post to review Pimm's work. And Post, a former curator of the Florida Museum of Natural History who now serves as ornithologist for the Charleston Museum in South Carolina, found Pimm guilty of "shoddy science."

Among Post's criticisms, which were eventually published in the August 2000 issue of Florida Field Naturalist: Pimm underestimates the sparrow's reproductive capacity and its ability to adapt if forced into another habitat and uses flawed survey methods to overstate its population decline. "It seems to me they had an agenda," Post says of Pimm and his team. "They had answers looking for questions. And the answers were that the sparrow is endangered and would be extinct in 20 years."

But recalling well the dusky's demise, Post adds that if the Cape Sable sparrow is in such dire straits, then a captive breeding program is in order.

The academic uproar did not end there. Post's critique led to another review of Pimm's work by a six-member panel of experts appointed by the American Ornithologists' Union. They too expressed some doubts about the data used to make predictions on the bird's numbers and future but concluded that Pimm and other researchers were making good use of the methods and resources available. "Therefore, the primary long-range goal should be to alter water management in order to produce hydro periods that more closely match historic ones," the panel wrote. As for Post's suggestion that a captive breeding program be started, the panel concluded: "risky, unnecessary, premature and distracting at this time."

Pimm sees the American Ornithologists' Union review as vindication. He is equally dismissive of Post and his accomplishments. "My papers are in top international journals (something Post has managed only a few times in his career)," Pimm writes in a June 25 e-mail from Queensland, Australia, where he was to deliver an address on rainforest ecology.

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."

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 Farm equality: 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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Mike Clary