Everglades restoration: Is it for the birds?

OKEECHOBEE — Environmentalists face a difficult choice in the Everglades. Proposed restoration efforts — which would increase flow to the Everglades — could threaten more than one endangered species. Preserving the habitat for the endangered birds could slow or restrict some restoration efforts.

The Committee on Independent Scientific Review of Everglades Restoration Progress report from the National Academies of Sciences, Engineering and Medicine, released Dec. 16, 2016 notes the Everglades restoration goals sometimes conflict with the habitat requirements for endangered species.

“The frequent nesting of stilts and snail kites in the STAs (storm water treatment areas) affects operations of most flow-ways and a large percentage of individual STA treatment cells. Protecting stilts and kites potentially conflicts with restoration goals related to water quality,” the report found, documenting the reduction in STA performance due to protection of nesting birds. “Restoration activities that produce net benefits for a species at the system scale can often create negative local impacts on that species.

Cape Sable Seaside Sparrow endangered

The marl prairies of the Everglades are nesting sites for Cape Sable Seaside sparrows.

The Cape Sable Seaside Sparrow nests low to the ground. Increasing water levels in the birds’ nesting area could mean extinction. Photo courtesy National Park Service.

According to the National Park Service (NPS) web site, the sparrows nest in dense, clumped grasses. The sparrows tend to avoid tall, dense, sawgrass-dominated communities, spike-rush marshes, extensive areas of cattails, wetlands with tall, dense vegetation, and areas of woody vegetation.

The sparrows build cup-shaped nests about six inches off the ground, making their nests vulnerable to floodwaters.

Researchers now believe areas that are now marl prairies originally had muck soil on top of the marl, but that due to dry conditions, the muck oxidized.

Thus an actual “restoration” would destroy the sparrows’ current habitat.

Sometimes birds who are pushed out their habitat can shift to new territory.  Migratory sandhill cranes that lost their winter habitat in Mexico established new nesting areas in South Florida.

But Cape Sable Seaside Sparrows only live about 4 years and according to the NPS they do not regularly disperse over large distances. It’s doubtful they could find other nesting sites. Losing their habitat in the Everglades could mean extinction.

The Cape Sable Seaside Sparrow population in the Everglades could be threatened by increasing water levels in their nesting area. Photo courtesy National Park Service.

The Cape Sable Seaside Sparrow is not the only endangered bird whose habitat might be threatened by other environmental restoration efforts.

Everglades Snail Kite

Last Spring the welfare of endangered Everglades Snail Kite put the South Florida Water Management District at odds with the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Services when an order to release water from the upper Kissimmee Basin (benefitting Snail Kite habitat) led to a setback in the Kissimmee River Restoration project. The churning water came down the river with such force that it washed out work on Phase 4 of the Kissimmee River Restoration.
A July 8 letter written by SFWMD Peter Antonacci to Senators Marco Rubio and Bill Nelson shed some light on one reason water managers released the heavy flow of water down the Kissimmee River in May.

The Everglades Snail Kite feeds on Apple Snails. Changes in water levels can affect the birds’ food supply. Photo courtesy Florida Audubon Society.

The letter illustrated the issues faced by state agencies when dealing with federal regulations.

Due to the authority under the Endangered Species Act, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Services (USFWS) can influence the water levels in the Kissimmee Chain of Lakes.

According to Greg Kennedy, with the Florida Department of Environmental Protection (DEP), on May 21, the South Florida Water Management District (SFWMD) more than doubled the flow of the Kissimmee River from the S-65C gate just north of Pool D.

This gate is just north of the fourth phase of the Kissimmee River Restoration Project which was under way in the Pool D area at the time. The water pressure washed out an earthen berm that had been built across an area that was being backfilled, and washed out the fill that had been placed in the channel.

A turbidity curtain was in place to reduce the soil washing downstream but it could not withstand the water pressure, and it failed.

Mr. Kennedy said a turbidity curtain is a floating barrier with weights on the bottom. Any suspended solids in the water hit the curtain and fall to river bottom.

The turbidity curtain failed due to the high flows, he said.

Mr. Kennedy said he could not comment on any environmental impact the muddy water might have on Lake Okeechobee.

At the time, SFWMD’s Randy Smith said the flow at the S-65-C gate near Lorida was increased due to heavy rainfall in the Upper Kissimmee Basin.

SFWMD increased the flows due to the water level schedules that are in place for the Kissimmee Chain of Lakes. USFWS has the power to influence those schedules to protect endangered wildlife.

Ironically, one of the goals of the Kissimmee River Restoration is to restore habitat for endangered species.

On June 29, responding to the algal blooms on the Treasure Coast, Governor Rick Scott declared a state of emergency. Thanks to that declaration, the SFWMD slowed the flow of water down the Kissimmee River by keeping the water at higher levels in the upper basin. Less water going into the lake help slow the rise of the lake and reduced the need for discharges to the coastal estuaries. But that change apparently brought protests from USFWS, according to the letter written by Mr. Antonacci.

“The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service is forcibly standing behind the Endangered Species Act in an attempt to block the District with legal action,” wrote Mr. Antonacci.

According to the letter, USFWS wanted the flow to the lower Kissimmee restored for the sake of Everglades Snail Kites. Apparently 10 snail kite nests are in the floodplain.

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