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For Immediate Release, June 30, 2008

Contacts: Mike Senatore, Center for Biological Diversity, (301) 466-0774
Brian Scherf, Florida Biodiversity Project, (954) 922-5828
Brad Sewell, Natural Resources Defense Council, (212) 727-4507

Conservation Groups Plan Legal Action to Prevent the
Extinction of the Cape Sable Seaside Sparrow

WASHINGTON— The Center for Biological Diversity, Florida Biodiversity Project, and Natural Resources Defense Council today notified the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service that they will challenge the agency’s failure to adequately protect the critical habitat of the highly endangered Cape Sable seaside sparrow.

The sparrow has been listed as an endangered species since 1967 and is found only in small areas of Everglades National Park and an immediately adjacent corner of the Big Cypress National Preserve. In 1999, the species was declared in imminent jeopardy of extinction because of degradation of its Everglades habitat, which had resulted from the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers’ water-management practices.

The Endangered Species Act requires designation and protection of endangered species’ critical habitat. Twenty-five years ago the Fish and Wildlife Service determined that the sparrow’s designated critical habitat was insufficient to ensure its recovery and survival; in 2003, in response to a petition by conservation groups, a federal court ordered the Service to revise the sparrow’s critical habitat. The Service finalized its revised critical habitat designation in November 2007. Incredibly, the agency actually reduced the amount of designated habitat, notwithstanding the fact that the best available scientific data established that more habitat protection was necessary if the sparrow was to survive.

"The FWS decision not to expand critical habitat protection contradicts 20 years of sparrow science. It appears the FWS has learned absolutely nothing from the extinction of the dusky seaside sparrow,” said Brian Scherf of the Florida Biodiversity Project.

The Service’s decision also violates the intent of the federal court’s order requiring the agency to revise the sparrow’s critical habitat designation to ensure its continued survival.

“The Fish and Wildlife Service’s designation is legally and scientifically baseless and represents a new low for the Bush administration, which has an abysmal track record on protecting endangered species,” said Mike Senatore, biodiversity program director at the Center for Biological Diversity.

Scientists consider the sparrow to be an indicator species for the health of its Everglades habitat. The Fish and Wildlife Service determined in 1999 that a long-stalled plan to restore water flows to the park needed to be jumpstarted to save the species in the long term. Restoration of the park’s historic flow-way would also relieve high water levels to the park’s north and benefit other endangered species such as the snail kite and wood stork.

Ten years later, the restoration project remains stalled. “This decision is a decision against Everglades restoration and against protecting the Everglades’ most fragile inhabitants, and those that help make it such a special place, for future generations to witness,” said Brad Sewell, senior attorney with the Natural Resources Defense Council.

Dr. Stuart Pimm, the leading scientific expert on the species and one of the peer reviewers of the proposed designation, concluded that “[t]he final designation of Critical Habitat for the Cape Sable seaside sparrow is inept, ignores peer-reviewed science, embraces wholly unsupported and unavailable documents speculating on possible future and past scenarios, and includes a trite economic analysis. By reversing its earlier sensible proposal, this revision tacitly accepts massive damage to nearly a thousand square kilometers of our most important national wetland park and risks the extinction of a federally listed endangered species.”

This week’s announcement by the state of Florida that it intends to buy out the U.S. Sugar Corporation, including its significant Everglades land holdings 50 miles north of the park, could provide a boost to the effort to restore water flows to the park and to sparrow habitat. Environmentalists anticipate that most of the land will be set aside to store and cleanse water so that it can be sent south into the Everglades and ultimately into the park during dry periods.

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