Dispute over snail kite puts Everglades restoration at risk

Water district chief Pete Antonacci said he was threatened.
Water district chief Pete Antonacci said he was threatened.
Published March 29, 2016

Known for its curved bill, square tail and red eyes, the Everglades snail kite has been a fixture on on the federal endangered species list since the first one was issued in 1967.

Yet, after decades of fending off extinction, the snail kite finds itself in the cross-hairs of a standoff between state and federal bureaucrats that could imperil already strained efforts to restore the Everglades.

It started last month when a federal official threatened to jail state regulators for failing to protect the species properly, according to Gov. Rick Scott's former general counsel.

"Threatening arrests and the attendant loss of personal freedom can never be taken lightly," Pete Antonacci, who is now the executive director of the South Florida Water Management District, wrote in a Feb. 26 letter to the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service.

Antonacci accused a Fish and Wildlife Service official named Bob Progulske of threatening to have him and the Florida boss of the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers arrested. Progulske denies it.

"I don't have that authority," Progulske said Monday. "I'm a wildlife biologist."

But Antonacci, a former prosecutor, insisted in an interview with the Times that it happened: "As someone who grew up in law enforcement, I know an arrest threat when I hear one."

The kite kerfuffle erupted at last month's meeting of the state and federal agencies overseeing the Everglades restoration project, which debuted in 2000 to great fanfare, but has since been repeatedly delayed. The project has no chance of being finished by 2020, its original completion date, and costs well above its initial $7.8 billion estimate.

Every three months, the agencies assess its uncertain progress. Antonacci, who took over as head of the state's largest water district last fall, attended his first quarterly meeting Feb. 25.

No one keeps careful minutes, so what happened is a matter of debate.

At some point, talk turned to the Everglades snail kite. Progulske discussed the rate at which water was being dumped from lakes in the Kissimmee River valley into Lake Okeechobee.

Torrential rains in January overloaded Lake Okeechobee. The Corps released large amounts of lake water to estuaries on both sides of the state, causing environmental and economic disruptions.

Changing the water level too quickly disrupts the kite's spring nesting, Progulske explained. Their nests get swept away and they fail to reproduce.

Causing that type of destruction for an endangered species without first getting a federal permit is illegal — and so far, neither the Corps nor the water district had applied for any such permit, despite the repeated urging of Progulske's agency.

According to Antonacci, Progulske threatened to haul him and Col. Jason Kirk off to jail because they hadn't gotten a permit. Antonacci wrote in a subsequent letter that he had instructed his entire staff "to have no further communication of any kind with Bob Progulske pending further notice."

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Progulske called to apologize, but Antonacci refused to take the call. The threat had been made in a public meeting, he said, so he deserved a public apology — not one delivered in private.

"Resolving matters confidentially would mean that the witnesses to the threat will reasonably believe that things are left unresolved," he wrote to Progulske's boss, Larry Williams, on March 1.

He added that what had happened threatened to derail restoring the River of Grass.

"The federal-state partnership in Everglades restoration depends on mutual respect and a collaborative spirit between agencies," Antonacci wrote. "These worthy goals were seriously harmed in our offices last week."

According to Williams and Progulske, this is all just a big misunderstanding.

"While the conversation was certainly awkward and arguably inappropriate, you misunderstood Mr. Progulske's motives as threatening you and Col. Kirk with arrest," Williams wrote Antonacci on March 3.

Although Progulske did not issue any threats, according to Williams, he was still "counseled" about how he discussed the issue at the meeting.

Corps of Engineers officials declined to comment.

For now, Williams considers the flap over the kite's fate a closed matter — with no public apology from Progulske necessary.

Antonacci said he never really expected an apology. He sent all the letters -- with copies to congressman -- to make a point.

"I just wanted to get it on the record that these stormtrooper tactics are completely inappropriate," he said.

Everglades snail kites live in freshwater marshes and the shallow vegetated edges of natural and manmade lakes, places where they can hunt the apple snail, their preferred food. But changes made to the Everglades in the name of flood control have disrupted the natural flow, fragmenting their habitat. The kites' population declined from 3,400 birds in 2000 to just 700 by 2008. Recently they have been doing better, however, because an invasive species of snails proved to be edible by the kites.

Contact Craig Pittman at Follow @craigtimes.