For the Birds

Page 4 of 7

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.

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Mike Clary