Federal wildlife managers want Florida’s manatee, the whiskered lumbering icon that came to represent the fight to save the state’s vulnerable wildlife, removed from the endangered species list.
In a news conference at the Miami Seaquarium on Thursday, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service said that a population estimated at just over 6,000 should be reclassified as simply “threatened” despite a record number of deaths in recent years. They called the down-listing a positive move signaling a recovery and stressed that the change would not reduce protections already in place.
“Based on the best available scientific information, we believe the manatee is no longer in danger of extinction,” said Mike Oetker, the agency’s deputy regional director. “While we’re proposing this change in class, we also recognize there are areas we have to do better.”
The decision comes under mounting pressure from developers and the boating industry who have long complained that slow speed zones and other protective measures are too strict. Last year, the conservative Pacific Legal Fund sued federal officials after petitioning for the removal in 2012, arguing that boat collisions and other threats have been largely reduced.
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But conservationists say the decision directly contradicts the agency’s plan to save the manatees by not relying on population counts.
Between 2010 and 2013 the population went backwards and they’re not even talking about that.
Pat Rose, executive director of the Save the Manatee Club
“Between 2010 and 2013 the population went backwards and they’re not even talking about that,” said Pat Rose, executive director of the Save the Manatee Club. “To suggest the threats are controlled is just not the way to approach it.”
They also worry that the change will be echoed around the state, where endangered species and environmental causes are coming under increasing threat.
In a 2014 response to the proposed down-listing, the group raised concerns about the state’s willingness to protect manatees: State environmental enforcement cases fell by 68 percent in 2013, the Department of Environmental Protection’s budget and staff have been slashed and the Florida Fish and Wildlife Commission has fallen behind on management plans in key manatee habitats. Even federal wildlife officials ruled a 2007 recovery plan as outdated but have yet to revise it.
According to that plan, success should not be determined by “how many manatees exist,” but by how well actions keep the gentle sea cows from harm. Between 2010 and 2013, more than 2,400 manatees were killed, or nearly half the population counted last year.
Critics of recovery efforts also have complained that annual aerial counts conducted by the state are inaccurate.
In reaching their decision, wildlife officials used computer models to calculate the risk of extinction to manatees. They concluded over the next century, the odds were about 2.5 percent. However, those models did not factor in the recent deaths from the 2010 cold snap, a red tide event or an increasing number of boat fatalities in 2015 because the information was not available, said Jim Valade, the agency’s manatee recovery coordinator.
They also stressed repeatedly that protective measures would remain in place and any new threats to manatee habitat would come under federal scrutiny.
“If they want to get a permit from us, we’re going to ask do you have a manatee protection plan,” said Larry Williams, the agency’s Florida supervisor.
West Indian manatees, which are found in the U.S. along the southeast coast and Puerto Rico and were first protected at the turn of the century, have long served as a measure of how well booming Florida co-existed with its fragile wildlife. With no natural predators, their biggest threats came chiefly from human activity: Pioneers slaughtered them for hides and modern-day boaters ran them down by the hundreds.
Their numbers started to climb after the Save the Manatee Club, co-founded by Sen. Bob Graham and Jimmy Buffett in 1981, sued the state and federal government in 2000 to force better boating regulations and other measures. In 2007, after counts recorded more than 3,000 manatees, federal managers considered down-listing them but backed off.
The Pacific Legal Fund, a group that advocates for property rights and reduced government regulation, welcomed the announcement but criticized the agency for “sitting on their hands.”
“It has taken eight years and two lawsuits to get federal officials to follow up on their own experts’ recommendation to reclassify the manatee,” attorney Christina Martin said in a statement. “We are glad to see that the manatee is doing well, but all taxpayers should demand that the government do much better, going forward, in following the requirements of the Endangered Species Act.”
But conservationists fear the agency is acting too hastily by not including recent deaths in models, which could indicate not enough is being done to protect warm water wintering habitats. Later this year, the U.S. Geological Survey is expected to complete a report that looks at whether the deaths affected the population, Valade said, which will be part of the agency’s final decision at the end of the year.
About 60 percent of the state’s manatees now winter around power plants. Some worry those habitats aren’t sustainable for the future and worry that without manatees to protect them, springs could also come under attack. They also worry the federal decision failed to consider impacts from climate change.
“The manatee is a tugboat species,” Rose said. “They pull and push along protections for the whole ecosystem.”
While federal officials insist existing rules won’t change, Rose said that without the endangered classification, protections could begin to erode. Already, he said legislation has been proposed in Brevard County to undermine the state’s Manatee Sanctuary Act.
State officials at the news conference, including Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commissioner Liesa Priddy, who has argued to lift protections for the Florida panther, say the state’s management plan remains “adaptive.”
“If things get better or worse, we can change on a case by case basis,” said Ernie Marks, the agency’s south region director.
Rose said the group may consider its own legal action, but first hopes to persuade state and federal officials to come up with a warm water contingency plan and enforce the Manatee Sanctuary Act, which has established low speed zones around the state.
Thursday’s proposal is now open to public comment for 90 days. A public hearing will be held Feb. 20 in Orlando.