Fight to save nearly extinct sparrow turns into fight over how to save it

The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service has ended its contract with the foundation that was breeding the endangered birds in captivity. No one knows what will happen to the sparrows now.
Published March 13
Updated March 14

Florida's grasshopper sparrow is regarded as the most endangered bird in the continental United States. It has suffered from lost habitat, a non-native parasite and a steep population decline. Now it's facing its greatest challenge yet:

Bureaucracy.

This time it may not survive. If the sparrow goes extinct in spite of more than $1 million spent to save it in recent years, it would be the first American bird in three decades to disappear.

PRIOR COVERAGE: Desperate officials launch captive breeding program to save nearly extinct bird.

An organization affiliated with Florida International University, the Rare Species Conservatory Foundation, has had some success raising the sparrows in captivity while scientists try to figure out how to deal with the parasite. But now the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service has decided to end its contract with the group — even though it does not yet have anywhere else to transfer the 43 sparrows that the foundation has been raising.

"We sent them a letter saying we're going to go our separate ways," said Ken Warren, a spokesman for the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service in Florida.

Paul Reillo, founding director of the Rare Species Conservatory Foundation, said Wednesday that he isn't clear on what happens next.

"Do they have the authority to just take the birds and throw them back out into the wild? I suppose they do," he said.

PRIOR COVERAGE: The grasshopper sparrow teeters on the edge of extinction.

The two sides split over whether it's time to put some of the captive-reared birds back into the Florida prairies where they once thrived. The federal agency wanted to start releasing the captive-raised birds back into the wild beginning last month.

But Reillo's foundation disagreed with the method for turning the birds loose, which to its scientists seemed to lack the necessary caution. For one thing, Reillo said the foundation wanted to make sure the birds would get three weeks to get used to their new home and their freedom. For another, the foundation said there would need to be some monitoring of their health to make sure they would not spread the parasite to uninfected birds in the wild.

On Dec. 26, the foundation sent a letter to the federal agency outlining its conditions for agreeing to release the birds. The agency's response was delayed by the government shutdown.

Then, on Feb. 11, the Fish and Wildlife Service replied that it did not have the resources to accommodate all of the foundation's wishes. The agency, in its letter, said it was adhering to a five-year plan for the sparrow.

It added: "Given this impasse, we believe the best option is to cordially end the partnership between (the foundation) and the Florida grasshopper sparrow program."

The agency's letter goes on to say, "We hope you will work with us to quickly identify the best way to transfer birds … to another facility." After acknowledging that no other wildlife care facility in Florida can handle 43 grasshopper sparrows, the letter notes, "Our goal is to have all birds transferred either to the wild or to another facility prior to April 1, 2019, or as soon as possible thereafter."

Warren, with Fish and Wildlife Service, said he had nothing else to say about the deadlock beyond what was in the letter.

"I guess we'll see how it all plays out," he said.

Instead of sparrows, what's been flying back and forth since Feb. 11 are letters and emails. The federal agency "wants us to do the very things we disagree with," Reillo said. So the foundation has resisted turning over the birds.

A major sticking point, he said: Federal officials are less worried about the risk of spreading the parasite than the foundation's scientists are. They regard it as "of negligible concern," he contended, and so "basically they're saying we're going to ignore all these scientific findings and do it our way. I'd rather err on the side of caution."

Warren said the agency had convened a committee of experts to examine the risk of the captive birds infecting other sparrows, and “the consensus was that it was low.”

The protozoan parasite starts in the sparrows’ intestines when they are less than a year old and then invades vascular tissue in the liver, heart, spleen and other organs. Because it's a non-native species, their immune system can't fight it off.

How deadly is it? When the captive breeding program launched in 2013, experts predicted the remaining estimated 150 or so grasshopper sparrows still in the wild would go extinct in three to five years. By 2017, biologists counted just 53 males and 22 females in the wild.

The breeding program scored initial success in 2016 when the first four chicks were hatched in the foundation's laboratory in Loxahatchee. A second breeding facility at White Oak Conservation in Yulee has another 30 or so birds, Reillo said.

Last year was full of ups and downs for the foundation's sparrow breeding program, he said. At one point, because of the continued conflict with the government agency, the foundation lost all of its $100,000 annual private funding for breeding the sparrows, he said. Some donors have now returned, he said.

PRIOR COVERAGE: Endangered sparrows hatch in captivity, providing hope.

Florida grasshopper sparrows are about 5 inches long, with flat heads, short tails and black and gray feathers that help them hide. They are generally heard more than seen, with a call that consists of two or three weak notes followed by an insect-like buzz — hence their name.

The species was first described in 1902 by a U.S. Army surgeon, Maj. Edgar A. Mearns, when its population was widespread across south-central Florida. By the 1970s, so many of the prairies that formed their habitat had been ditched and drained and converted to pastures or sod production that sparrow numbers plummeted. The parasite began taking a toll on the survivors — including some bred in captivity.

If the grasshopper sparrow can’t be saved, it would be the first bird species in the U.S. to go extinct since a cousin, the dusky seaside sparrow, disappeared in 1987. The last dusky died at Walt Disney World. An effort to save the dusky with a captive breeding program failed when it turned out the only remaining birds were all males.

Contact Craig Pittman at craig@tampabay.com. Follow @craigtimes.

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