Everglades sparrow stirs controversy in southern Florida

Published October 1, 2001

Efforts to protect the endangered Cape Sable seaside sparrow have divided residents throughout southern Florida. The controversy surrounds a U.S. Army Corps of Engineers plan to pump water into the eastern Everglades to facilitate sparrow nesting.

The Cape Sable seaside sparrow is nicknamed the “Goldilocks” bird because it requires water depths that are “just right” to lay eggs. The Corps has proposed raising water levels in a canal near residential areas bordering the Everglades and removing a levee that protects homes in western Miami-Dade County from flooding.

“I think we can coexist, the urban area and the animals in their area,” commented Sweetwater Mayor Jose Diaz. “What we can’t do is jeopardize people because we want to improve the status of some little bird.”

Scientists estimate roughly 3,000 Cape Sable seaside sparrows live in the Everglades. Activists point out that the bird’s cousin, the dusky seaside sparrow, has already gone extinct despite a population of 2,000 birds in the late 1960s.

However, Diaz noted that raising the canal levels contradicts protective flooding measures devised in 1999 in the wake of Hurricane Irene.

Proposed flooding endangers people

The residents of Sweetwater are finding allies across southern Florida. The Miccosukee Indian Tribe claims the Corps has already flooded hundreds of tree islands that were important components of their land. Area farmers allege the Corps’ action would raise the underground aquifer, causing the roots of their crops to rot. And residents in the other half of the state claim the Corps erred in the past by pumping too much water into the western Everglades, thereby harming the very birds they now seek to protect.

In a suit filed last year by the Miccosukee Tribe and area farmers, a federal magistrate judge ruled the Army Corps of Engineers had “driven a Mack truck” through federal regulations by issuing emergency orders regarding the sparrow instead of conducting a full environmental impact statement.

Southern Florida residents are keeping a close watch as the Corps weighs its next move.