|For Immediate Release
May 14, 1998
Contact: Diana M. Hawkins
THE UNITED STATES JOINS NATIONAL AUDUBON SOCIETY TO
TAKE LEGAL ACTION TO PROTECT TINY SPARROW FROM EXTINCTION
The Department of Justice, on behalf of the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service is seeking an immediate injunction in U.S. District Court for the Southern District of Florida to prevent the likely extirpation of a population of the tiny Florida grasshopper sparrow in one of the bird's few remaining habitats. An emergency motion to intervene in a lawsuit filed by the National Audubon Society was filed on behalf of the Service by the Department of Justice. The suit names three private landowners, Haynes Williams of 101 Ranch, Michael Powell, and Steve Powell of Tiger Cattle Company, as defendants and the Service joins Audubon in asking the court to enjoin the defendants from "taking" the endangered bird in violation of Section 9 of the Endangered Species Act.
The motion to intervene centers on actions by the defendants that altered historic drainage patterns of water on the National Audubon Society's Ordway-Whittell Kissimmee Prairie Sanctuary in Okeechobee County, Florida, and caused harm or will cause harm to the sparrow. The sanctuary is home to one of six remaining populations of the songbird, and the only population found on private land.
The Endangered Species Act defines "take" to include harming an endangered species. "Harm" is further defined as an act that would actually kill or injure the species and includes habitat modification or degradation that significantly impairs essential behavior patterns, including breeding, feeding or sheltering.
"The seeking of a legal remedy to this situation is a last-ditch effort to save this population of the highly endangered bird, " said the Service's Southeast Regional Director Sam D. Hamilton. "From what we can tell, there is only one breeding pair of this bird left in the sanctuary. We have exhausted every other avenue for working with the defendants and with the South Florida Water Management District to ensure that the grasshopper sparrow has favorable conditions for nesting during this year's breeding season, which is clearly a 'do or die' year. We cannot sit by and allow this bird to go the way of the dusky seaside sparrow when there is still a possibility, with landowner cooperation, that the extinction can be prevented," he said.
The Florida grasshopper sparrow, a nonmigratory bird that gets its name from the insect-like quality of its song, lives in dry prairie only in South Florida. The 5-inch long bird builds its nest of fine grasses in small, excavated depressions on the ground. Only about 300 breeding pairs of the bird remain in South Florida, most of them on public lands. The dramatic decline in the number of breeding pairs found in the Kissimmee Prairie Sanctuary, from 16 in 1993 to one pair today, is due to human disruption of natural water flows, combined with higher-than-average rainfall.
State, private and other federal entities including the Fish and Wildlife Service have worked for 3 years to identify potential solutions to the water flow problem, but the parties have been unable to reach consensus on a course of action.
Historically, water flowed south and west from the sanctuary into tributaries of the Kissimmee River. The southern border of the sanctuary lies on an earthen dike, built in the 1850s during the Third Seminole War and known locally as Military Grade. Until recently, water flowed south through culverts in Military Grade; and in exceptionally wet periods, water also flowed over the dike.
Over a 15-year-period, the defendants in the complaint have raised the elevation of Military Grade and removed or restricted water flows through the culverts in an effort to block water from flowing onto their lands. The result has been an impoundment of abnormally high levels of water on the sanctuary. The extended wet conditions within the dry prairie habitat have led to the precipitous drop in the sparrow population.
The Department of Justice, on behalf of the Service, is asking the court to provide protection for the bird in three stages: a temporary restraining order that would immediately prevent further impounding of the water on the sanctuary and provide more favorable conditions for the breeding season now underway; a preliminary injunction that would extend those favorable conditions through the life of the lawsuit; and permanent relief that would ensure long-term measures are put into place to prevent a recurrence of the high water levels from human actions in the future.
"The similarity of the situation facing the grasshopper sparrow to that of the Cape Sable seaside sparrow in the Everglades reinforces the urgency of our taking action now to protect these birds," said Regional Director Hamilton. "We humans have within our capability the knowledge and creativity to solve our problems in a way that protects our wildlife resources for enjoyment by present and future generations of Americans. Extinction is too high a price to pay for inaction," he said.
The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service is the principal Federal agency responsible for conserving, protecting, and enhancing fish and wildlife and their habitats for the continuing benefit of the American people. The Service manages more than 94 million acres of land and water consisting of 512 national wildlife refuges, 65 national fish hatcheries, 38 wetland management districts with waterfowl production areas, and 50 wildlife coordination areas.
The agency also enforces Federal wildlife laws, manages migratory bird populations, restores nationally significant fisheries, conserves and restores wildlife habitat, such as wetlands, administers the Endangered Species Act, and helps foreign governments with their conservation efforts.
Release #: R98-033
|Attachment to Release
BACKGROUND INFORMATION -- FLORIDA GRASSHOPPER SPARROW
ABOUT THE BIRD AND ITS HABITAT
SEQUENCE OF EVENTS
Attachment to Release #: R98-033
1998 News Releases