Sparrow debate spans over 20 years

WEST PALM BEACH — An email message from a U.S. Army Corps of Engineers official expressing frustration with the restrictions on water movement from the water conservation areas north of the Tamiami Trail in order to protect the nesting grounds of the Cape Sable seaside sparrow has been circulating online recently. That’s not surprising, since the protection for the sparrows was discussed at the November meeting of the South Florida Water Management District Governing Board.

What may come as a suprise: The memo was written in 2008.

“The devastation north of the trail must stop,” wrote Col. Terry Rice, retired. “We don’t have much longer as the damage is not only serious but irreversible. And nobody wants to hurt an endangered species like the sparrow, but what they have been doing for years now has simply not helped.”

In 2008, the colonel noted the survey documented seven sparrows. The most recent survey documented eight sparrows. The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service estimates the Cape Sable seaside sparrow population in the Everglades to be 100-200 birds.

The hyphothesis that drying out south of the S-12 structures will cause the sparrow to flourish “has been tested and has not worked,” Col. Rice wrote in 2008. “When one is in a hole, the first thing one should do is stop digging … it’s time to stop digging.”

Eleven years after Col. Rice gave that advice, 22 years after the protections were put in place in an effort to increase the sparrow population, the new SFWMD governing board is facing the same frustrations as the previous SFWMD governing boards.

In a Nov. 21 letter to the SFWMD governing board, Mike Elfenbein, director of the Foundation for Balanced Environment Stewardship, included a copy of Col. Rice’s 2008 statements, and encouraged the board members “to be the last governing board that has to deal with this issue.

“This problem is decades old and U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service hasn’t moved the needle forward, only backwards. Not only on the issues but also as it relates to the sparrow population. This directive has caused irreparable harm to the rest of the system. Clearly, as this governing board overwhelmingly pointed out, what USFWS is doing is not working. This is the same sentiment that was expressed by the previous governing board … and the one before that …. and the one before that.

“The USFWS position to continue with the status quo is the definition of insanity,” he wrote.

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