One of Florida's endemic species, the Florida grasshopper sparrow, is on the path to extinction. The bird lives only in the dry prairies south of Orlando and it's believed that less than 200 of the highly-specialized sparrows remain in the wild, though funding doesn't exist to adequately track the population. Part of the problem has been drumming up the public support -- and money -- necessary to study what has happened to the subspecies.
"People don't tend to care about a sparrow," said Dr. Reed Noss, a research professor at the University of Central Florida and one of the state's foremost authorities on the rare species. "They're beautiful little birds."
Recently, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service rejected a three-year, $833,000 grant submitted by the Florida Grasshopper Sparrow Working Group -- a volunteer group of biologists, researchers, and non-profit environmental groups -- that would've funded field research on the endangered bird.
Noss was quoted in an Orlando Sentinel story this week about the USFWS decision: "This subspecies will be extinct soon, and we have largely the USFWS to blame for turning down proposals for essential field research."
This was the fourth major field proposal put forth by the Florida Grasshopper Sparrow Working Group since 2007. All have been turned down by the USFWS, though the agency has funded smaller projects, including some genetic sampling.
Reached in the field Tuesday morning, Noss conceded that the USFWS is "underfunded by Congress and they have to make some tough calls." But he speculated that the decision is political (at least in part) given that "more charismatic species" tend to get more funding. A small bird that is challenging to spot may be a more difficult sell than, say, a bird of prey, like the Everglades snail kite, or a large mammal, like the Florida panther.
There are a number of factors at play in the sparrow's decline and much that remains a mystery. The bird has long had to contend with habitat loss. Prior to European settlement, Florida had approximately 1.2 million acres of dry prairie. That number is now around 100,000 acres, according to best estimates.
The bird's population has seen an estimated 90 percent decline in just the last decade, Noss said. Human fire suppression or burning "at the wrong time of year" has been a factor. Without necessary and natural fire cycles, the ecosystem cannot sustain itself and transforms into a different ecosystem altogether. The proliferation of invasive fire ants has come into play, as the ants are known to predate on sparrow nestlings. Scientists have been unable to determine the full impact of the fire ants.
Without funding to conduct thorough surveys, much is left unknown. Noss said there may be another cause of decline that hasn't yet been fully identified. There's also the possibility that there are more birds in the wild than reported, but Noss seemed doubtful of that scenario. He's operating in crisis mode and wondered after this latest funding loss, whether "it could possibly be too late."
The bird's situation calls to mind the well-documented tale of the dusky seaside sparrow, a native South Florida bird that went extinct in 1986. By the time researchers began capturing the few living dusky seaside sparrows in the state, only males remained. Noss said a similar thing is happening with the Florida grasshopper sparrow population which is also predominantly male.
Noss and his colleagues have speculated that "some pressure from a public official" might help to persuade the USFWS to reconsider funding for the species. When asked why the public should care about the bird, Noss said studies have shown that people have expressed interest in preserving wildlife that is specific to their region.
"Any animal or plant that is found nowhere else in the world; it's something to be proud of," Noss said. "It's part of our natural treasure."
Learn more about the Florida grasshopper sparrow and what groups like Audubon Florida are doing to educate the public about its decline by visiting the Audubon's website.