Deep in the Everglades, where whiskers of muhly grass bloom purple in fall, lives a sparrow — a diminutive bird, shy, mostly unremarkable, yet it wields the full might of the federal government in its bid to exist.
The endangered Cape Sable seaside sparrow, eyes framed by yellow crescents, nests just above the crumbly soil of marl prairies flanking the marshy flow of Shark River Slough in Everglades National Park.
Its location, by virtue of man's ambition to tame and drain the river of grass, puts the bird at odds with the Miccosukee Indian Tribe. Year after year, the tribe watches its cherished tree islands drown north of a Tamiami Trail tourniquet while the protected sparrow to the south stays dry.
A decades-long debate about whether the sparrow is blocking Everglades restoration, including re-hydrating the parched park, has reared again under a new South Florida Water Management District governing board with orders to send water south instead of damaging northern estuaries with Lake Okeechobee overflow.
This month, the freshman board of Gov. Ron DeSantis appointees, questioned the "single-species management" by the US Fish and Wildlife Service of a bird whose population dwindled to an estimated 32 last year in a western nesting area where the argument about water flow has focused.
In total, an estimated 3,100 Cape Sable seaside sparrows are believed to live in and near Everglades National Park. That's down from a 1981 estimate of 6,656.
"The management of this bird is affecting the entire South Florida ecosystem," said Gene Duncan, the tribe's water resources director, who is urging water management board members to comment on a 5-year sparrow review opened this month by US Fish and Wildlife. "The difference this year is we have the east and west coast estuaries all up in arms about their algae blooms so it's not just us upset because they don't seem to care when the Indians get upset."
Restoration for all
Conservationists, Florida Audubon and US Fish and Wildlife (FWS) argue the bird is a scapegoat for mistakes made during the misguided reroute of Florida's plumbing and before the sparrow's 1967 listing as endangered.
Four massive gates called the S-12s allow water to flow from the flooded land north of Tamiami Trail to the south. Two are closed between Oct. 1 and July 15 so the remaining few birds can hatch their young in flood-vulnerable nests built just six inches above the ground.
But it's not just that the gates are closed. They were also built in the wrong place.
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The 1950s engineering blunder, a matter complicated by land ownership decades ago, means while the gates can allow water into Everglades National Park, they send it to places it wouldn't naturally go, namely the sparrow's western marl prairie instead of east into Shark River Slough.
"The sparrow is not in the wrong place, those gates are in the wrong place," said Audubon Florida's Everglades Policy Director Celeste De Palma. "What we are trying to do with Everglades restoration is correct the flow of water so it goes where it's supposed to go. It just happens that's also what's right for the sparrow."
At the same time, there is debate about whether just unplugging the Tamiami Trail will save the northern estuaries because much of the water flooding the tree islands is from rainfall and land south of Lake Okeechobee — the Everglades Agricultural Area — not the lake itself.
"In short, there is no relationship between water going to the estuaries and the impact that sparrows cause in terms of water stacking up at the Tamiami Trail," said Bob Progulske, Everglades program supervisor with US Fish and Wildlife, or FWS.
Cape Sable no longer home to its namesake bird
The Cape Sable seaside sparrow is one of eight remaining subspecies of seaside sparrows. It borrows its name from the southernmost point in the mainland U.S., a half moon-shaped peninsula at the edge of Everglades National Park fronted by a fine sandy beach and marked inland by prairies, marshes, mangroves and lakes.
The Labor Day Hurricane of 1935 inundated the sparrow's habitat with up to 8 feet of water, changing the landscape so much that the bird no longer nests there.
But Progulske said Cape Sable wasn't the only area where the sparrows were found in South Florida. Biologists noted small pockets in Collier County before and after the hurricane. The first observation in Everglades National Park was in 1954, he said.
"It's very likely there was always breeding in the park, but it's so hard to get in there, and they didn't have helicopter surveys back in the 30s and 40s," Progulske said. "It just happens that the birds on Cape Sable were fairly easy to access so we knew they were there."
The first extensive survey of the bird didn't happen until the 1970s with official counts beginning in 1981.
Getting accurate numbers is difficult. The birds are secretive, spending as much time running on the ground as flying, and small at about 5 inches tall.
To measure populations, a helicopter lands at different spots in the park for seven minutes at a time when observers listen for the male sparrow's buzzy chirp. Each male sparrow identified is multiplied by 16 to account for a companion female.
In the most recent count, the nesting area just south of the ill-placed flood gates along Tamiami Trail had one of the lowest populations of sparrows with observers noting only two males to come up with the estimate of 32.
Everyone agrees tree islands are dying
The two gates kept closed to protect the sparrows are operated by the Army Corps of Engineers, and everyone acknowledges the water that builds up to their north is killing tree islands and stressing the animals that live on them. Deer can suffer from standing in water too long, food runs out when every species is crowded on remaining dry spaces.
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But FWS says not only would opening the two gates outside of the set dates flood the wrong areas of Everglades National Park, it would provide little relief to the tree islands.
"If we opened them up two weeks early, the drop in the conservation area would be less than an inch, but it could completely wash away all of the sparrow nests," said Ken Warren, an FWS spokesman.
Duncan, the Miccosukee Tribe water director, disagrees, and made a case at the April 11 water district meeting that saving the tree islands would also reduce Lake Okeechobee discharges to the northern estuaries. The freshwater releases damage the brackish waterways, reducing salinity levels and encouraging the growth of toxic blue-green algae.
He appeared to have a sympathetic ear with some members.
"The reason we are all up here banging our heads on the table over a bird is not because we don't love birds, but because of the unbelievable damage being done to the estuaries to the east and the west for the love of that one bird," said board member Cheryl Meads, who represents counties from St. Lucie to Monroe. "This feels messed up to me."
In 2017, the FWS reluctantly agreed to open the S-12 gates after record rains and hard lobbying by then Florida Fish and Wildlife Commissioner Ron Bergeron, who complained dozens of other species were dying in high water to save the sparrow.
"It is important to look at the shared adversity and shared impacts for the global Everglades and all of its endangered species," Bergeron said then.
Bergeron is a now a member of the water management district governing board.
Long awaited restoration should help
There is hope the sparrow, the tree islands and the parched park can live in harmony with new infrastructure that was recently completed but not yet online.
Parts of the Tamiami Trail have been elevated and bridged to allow more water to flow into the right areas of Everglades National Park. A canal — the C-111 — that was cut through marshes in the 1960s is being fixed to allow more water to reach Taylor Slough, southwest of the larger Shark River Slough.
The Army Corps is now looking at how it will all work together. The so-called Combined Operations Plan is supposed to be finished by June 2020, a year behind schedule.
"There is a future where this debate about the sparrow will no longer be relevant and my hope is that it's a future that has healthy tree islands and a recovery of sparrow," said Shannon Estenoz, chief operating officer at the Everglades Foundation and former director of Everglades Restoration for the Interior Department. "The bird is desperate for Everglades restoration. It's not in the way of Everglades restoration."
This story originally published to palmbeachpost.com, and was shared to other Florida newspapers in the GateHouse Media network.