(CN) - Though efforts to restore the Everglades could destroy the habitat of an endangered sparrow species, the Department of the Interior has the discretion to make the decision, a Washington, D.C., federal judge ruled, noting that the plan is unlikely to cause the bird's extinction.
The Center for Biological Diversity has been fighting since 2000 to revise the critical habitat of the Cape Sable seaside sparrow, but Secretary of the Interior Ken Salazar excluded two critical areas from the final designation as the nonprofit was on cusp of achieving its goal.
Designated as a federally protected species in 1967, the sparrow has six subpopulations along the southern tip of the Florida Everglades. Each flock rarely moves from its chosen region. The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service has said that subpopulation A, or Sub A, is one of the species' two core populations.
While the five other subpopulations lie east of the Shark River Slough - a free-flowing channel of water that serves as the southern Everglades' primary drainage point into the Florida Bay - Sub A is secluded to the other side of the river. This separation and location, stretching through the Everglades National Park and touching the Big Cypress National Preserve, make Sub A "critically important to the species as a whole," the court found.
Sub A had been one of the largest flocks in 1992, but its numbers dwindled from 2,608 to just 16 in 2004. In 2006, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service estimated the cumulative sparrow population at 3,088 - only 112 of which belonged to Sub A.
But the sparrow's plight is set against the backdrop of an even bigger problem in the Everglades, Salazar argued. In 2007, when presented with Fish and Wildlife's publication of the revised designation for the sparrow's critical habitat, he excluded the two units proposed to support Sub A.
In addition to the need to correct water levels throughout the Everglades, the Miccosukee Tribe of Indians of Florida argues that sparrow conservation efforts have caused flooding to culturally significant sites.
After the Center for Biological Diversity sued Salazar to designate a protected area for Sub A, the Miccosukee intervened on the government's behalf.
As long as the Comprehensive Everglades Restoration Plan and other flood-control measures allow permanent water cover in the Everglades, the opportunity for the bird's dry-season, low-level nesting will be severely compromised and inevitably result in the sparrow's extinction, according to the nonprofit.
U.S. District Judge Rosemary Collyer ruled Wednesday that Salazar is in a difficult position but has broad discretion in his choice because he presented sufficient evidence that the sparrow is threatened, but no longer endangered.
At this juncture, given the "unrelenting encroachment" by man that the Everglades has sustained in the last century, Collyer agreed that it may be wise for the government to focus on return natural water flows to the Everglades,
Destroying the natural balance in the Everglades has affected the sparrows, by making their habitat alternatively too wet or too dry for reproduction, but the restoration plan aims to "provide a substantial benefit to the entire Everglades ecosystem, including the sparrow and other endangered species," according to the ruling.
Collyer ruled that the project can move forward with the allowance that the parties meet yearly to review sparrow management issues.
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