Manatees May Be Reclassified

In May of 2013 we reported that the Pacific Legal Foundation was suing the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service (FWS) to down list from endangered to threatened the manatee species found in the warm waters of Florida and elsewhere on the Atlantic Coast. Their client, Save Crystal River, Inc., opposes new federal boat speed regulations in Citrus County’s Kings Bay and is also not happy that FWS has moved to effectively take over the entire bay that the City of Crystal River sits on, the 600 acre Kings Bay, because manatees come into the bay for four months of the year. They feel that the threat of onerous federal regulations endangers the fishing and tourist industry.

Manatees have been on the federal endangered list since 1967. At that time they were not classified as endangered because of their numbers but because of the threats they faced from boat strikes and losing their habitat to waterfront development.

On January 7, 2016, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service issued a Press Release announcing a proposal to downlist the manatee from endangered to threatened. They said: “as a result of significant improvements in its population and habitat conditions, and reductions in direct threats, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service announced today that the West Indian manatee is proposed to be down listed from endangered to threatened status under the Endangered Species Act (ESA). The proposal to downlist the manatee to threatened will not affect federal protections currently afforded by the ESA, and the Service remains committed to conservation actions to fully recover manatee populations.

The ESA defines an endangered species as one currently in danger of extinction throughout all or a significant portion of its range, and a threatened species as one that is likely to become endangered within the foreseeable future. Given its review of the best scientific and commercial information available, including analyses of threats and populations, the Service proposes that the West Indian manatee no longer falls within the ESA’s definition of endangered and should be reclassified as threatened. “

“The manatee is one of the most charismatic and instantly recognizable species,” said Michael Bean, Principal Deputy Assistant Secretary for Fish and Wildlife and Parks at the Department of the Interior. “It’s hard to imagine the waters of Florida without them, but that was the reality we were facing before manatees were listed under the Endangered Species Act. While there is still more work to be done to fully recover manatee populations, their numbers are climbing and the threats to the species’ survival are being reduced. Today’s proposal is a positive step that recognizes the progress citizens, conservation groups, the State of Florida, the Commonwealth of Puerto Rico and our own Service employees have made working together.”

Elected officials, conservationists and the public have been quick to urge FWS to keep the Florida manatee lasted as an endangered species.

Senator Bill Nelson sent a letter to FWC saying in part: “Not only is a downgrading premature, it is also potentially dangerous to long-term recovery efforts. Threats to the Florida manatee are too great to warrant a change to its listing at this time. I urge you to maintain the endangered listing for this iconic species to ensure its permanent legacy in Florida.”

Congressman Vern Buchanan also added his voice to those opposing the proposal. In a letter to FWC he said: “I’m concerned that weakening protections will lead to a decline in the manatee population. Manatees are iconic residents of Florida. We should be doing all we can to ensure the survival of these gentle giants.”

FWS has calculated that there are now more than 6,000 manatees in Florida, far more than in the past twenty years. The most recent U.S. Geologic Survey computer model shows the Florida manatee population has less than 2.5 percent chance of falling below 4,000 over the next 100 years, assuming current threats remain constant.

Those critical of the proposal say that a swelling population in Florida and an increase in tourism will lead to more trouble for manatees. They also believe that the computer model does not take into account the loss of coastal habitat, nor massive die-offs from cold stress and red tide algae blooms.

The federal agency had one public hearing on changing the status of the manatee. They took written comments until April 7, 2016. They will have a year to adopt the proposed change or explain why it will not.

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