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A controversial bird — should Everglades Restoration hinge on a single species?

Cape Sable Seaside Sparrow
Tropical Audubon Society
The Florida Channel
Leon County Judge John Cooper on June 30, 2022, in a screen grab from The Florida Channel.

Everglades National Park is home to an endangered bird whose nesting habitat seemingly stands in the way of Everglades Restoration. Named after Cape Sable, the southernmost point in mainland United States, the Cape Sable Seaside Sparrow is so particular about its nesting habitat that it has been nicknamed the “Goldilocks Bird.” Only when perfect conditions are met — just enough flooding, just enough fires — will the male sparrow sing and nesting begin.

Finding suitable nesting ground has been difficult for the discerning little bird over the past 100 years. First they contended with repeated attempts in the early 1900s to drain the Everglades. Next came the major hurricanes of 1935, 1960 and 1992. Then more recent attempts to restore traditional water flows in the Everglades brought untimely flooding of the nesting grounds. Now the species face saltwater intrusion caused by rising seas — a climate change side effect that will further alter vegetation and potential habitat.

As a consequence of evolving conditions, both man-made and natural, the sparrow has sought out new suitable habitat, away from its traditional Cape Sable nesting grounds. In the process, its numbers have diminished significantly. The 2016 preliminary count, at 2400, is a record low.

Notwithstanding its designation as an endangered species in 1967, the Cape Sable Seaside Sparrow has continued to decline, despite the many, often disparate, efforts to reverse the trend, including setting aside more than 250,000 acres of critical habitat. In years with unusually heavy rainfall, as in the winter of 2015-2016, keeping the sparrow’s nesting grounds dry has become an inter-agency tug-of-war.

The Cape Sable Seaside Sparrow’s designated critical habitat and nesting grounds now lie in an area of traditional southern water flows, smack in the middle of the Everglades. It is argued that restoring these flows could negatively impact the sparrow’s precarious perch. Should the prospect of disturbing one sensitive species hold hostage the restoration of an entire ecosystem upon which hundreds of other species depend, including us? How do we weigh the needs and value of one species over another? Restoration impact could be parsed ad nauseum. For example, the critically endangered Snail Kite urgently needs the restoration of natural flows to survive, as opposed to the “just right” habitat needs of the Cape Sable Seaside Sparrow. 

Returning the Everglades to Mother Nature's original template — a river of grass whose wet and dry seasons once provided habitat for all — promises to benefit the greatest number of species. Restoring the flows will recharge the aquifer upon which three million Floridians depend for clean water, while helping to fend off sea level rise. Now is the time to push for an acceleration of Everglades Restoration. It’s #NoworNeverglades.

Clarification (posted on September 28th, 2016):  Unfortunately the above opinion piece did not clearly communicate Tropical Audubon's opinion that saving the Cape Sable Seaside Sparrow and all of the species within the Everglades ecosystem go hand in hand with Everglades Restoration, as defined in the bi-partisan Comprehensive Everglades Restoration Plan (CERP).

It was my intention to bring to light to the public the sparrow's plight as a distraction in moving forward with restoration. Pursuing the Comprehensive Everglades Restoration Plan, as planned, will best restore the habitat, preserve the ecosystem, and save all the species including the sparrow, as Mother Nature saw fit.

Erin Clancy is Conservation Director at the Tropical Audubon Society. 

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Erin Clancy