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Rare Hawk Disappearing From Everglades

July 6, 2008

By Curtis Morgan, The Miami Herald

Jul. 6–It’s never a good sign when an animal disappears from the place that gave it its name.

That’s what is happening to the Everglades snail kite, an endangered hawk whose numbers are in free fall from the compounded impacts of back-to-back droughts and a long-controversial water management scheme intended to protect another equally at-risk bird.

Though biologists have not yet wrapped up the latest annual count, they have already seen enough to know the kite has dropped to its lowest numbers in decades.

There may be fewer than 1,000 birds left, not even a third of the population in 2000.

“The situation is dire. It’s critical,” said Wiley Kitchens, a University of Florida research ecologist who leads a team that conducts the annual kite surveys.

“The birds are simply not replacing themselves.”

LEAVING HOME

Aside from several dozen adults, the birds also have largely abandoned their prime historic haunts of the Everglades and Lake Okeechobee. Now, most surviving birds live in a chain of Central Florida lakes 100 miles north, with the bulk of the nests in Lake Tohopekaliga, the largest lake in Osceola County.

Ringed with homes and buzzing with bass and ski boats, Lake Toho seems an unlikely haven, yet it has what the remnant Glades marsh far to the south does not — kite food.

For the Miccosukee Tribe, the kite’s accelerating death spiral is “alarming but to us not surprising,” said spokeswoman Joette Lorion. She called it compelling evidence that federal wildlife protections are failing in the Everglades.

For a decade, the tribe argued that the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service’s plan to protect another endangered bird that lives only in Everglades National Park, the Cape Sable seaside sparrow, was harming tribal lands and the rest of the River of Grass. The sparrow plan, subject to years of dispute among agencies, the tribe and environmentalists, seasonally closes floodgates along the Tamiami Trail to protect key nesting areas of the tiny bird from flooding.

The tribe claims the practice stacks high water in nearly 90,000 acres of tribal lands north of the trail, effectively drowning tree islands and a key critter in the Everglades food chain — the apple snail, the kite’s primary source of food.

The graceful bird, most often seen gliding over marsh scanning for snails, comes equipped with a distinctive needlesharp hooked beak adept at extracting soft flesh from the hard, golf-ball-sized shells.

“The Fish and Wildlife Service has no authority to choose among endangered species,” Lorion said. “They can’t say we’re going to do this for the sparrow then take the kite as a trade off.”

NATURE’S ROLE

Paul Souza, field supervisor in the Wildlife Service’s Vero Beach office, said he shares the concern and has met with Kitchens and South Florida water managers to discuss the options. But he believes the biggest factor is something no agency can control — nature.

“We don’t know for sure what the answer is,” he said, but wildlife managers believe the back-to-back two-year droughts play a big part, killing off snails in much of the Glades.

“We’ve seen relative stability in the snail population in non-drought years.”

Souza acknowledges the high water held in tribal lands also has had an impact, flooding out tiny eggs snails lay on the stems of marsh plants.

But he says the wildlife agency and the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers, which devised the water regime, are doing everything they can to balance the pressures on both birds while hampered with an obsolete flood-control system.

“The condition of the kite is one of the clearest indications of why Everglades restoration is so important,” Souza said.

With federal agencies pushing to finally break ground on a project to improve water flows through Tamiami Trail, a key but long-delayed Everglades restoration project, Souza believes conditions will improve for both the kite and the sparrow.

“For me, I am much more optimistic about the future of the snail kite and all these endangered species,” he said.

Water and wildlife managers, in the interim, also are trying to protect nesting in the lakes north of Lake Okeechobee, slowing recession to keep water under nests and predators out.

“We kind of brainstormed on this, realizing the kite is a hot environmental issue,” said Dean Powell, director of watershed management for the South Florida Water Management District.

The district also is bankrolling an apple snail breeding effort. It turns out that many of the snails that drew the kites to Lake Toho are exotic invaders, larger than apple snails and difficult for younger birds to eat.

ONCE A SUCCESS STORY

A decade ago, the kite — a founding member of the federal endangered species list in 1967 — had seemed one of the success stories in the Everglades.

In the 1960s, its population had dwindled to a few dozen adults as its wetlands home disappeared under development or was degraded from flooding and draining caused by South Florida’s expanding network of canals and dikes.

But by 1999, researchers counted nearly 3,600 scattered from the St. Johns River down into Everglades National Park. After the 2000-2001 drought, Kitchens says, the number fell by half. Now, it appears to have halved again.

Estimates for the tiny Cape Sable seaside sparrow also have dropped by more than half from about 6,600 in 1981 but its numbers have stabilized at around 3,000 over the last decade.

Kitchens and Phil Darby, a University of West Florida ecologist who monitors the apple snail population, discussed their preliminary assessments at a regional conference of the Native American Fish and Wildlife Society last month.

GRIM PICTURE

They found both kite and its prey largely gone in the Everglades north of Tamiami Trail. “Normally, every two steps you would encounter an apple snail,” Darby said. Instead, they were few and widely scattered.

“Are we seeing a rebound? The answer is absolutely not,” Kitchens said. He said field researchers found no nesting and birds that could be counted on “one or two hands.”

Both scientists agreed Everglades restoration could help the bird.

But given the slow progress of work and rapid decline of the kite, Kitchens said, “My concern is: Is this bird going to survive until the system is restored?”

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