For the Birds

Page 6 of 7

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."

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Mike Clary