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Manatee's Endangered Status Up For Review; May Affect Florida Habitat, Communities

Matthew Bednarik via Flickr

The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service announced this week it is reviewing the manatee’s status as an endangered species. According to ecologists and Florida residents, the decision may have consequences for more than just the mammal.

From Tampa Bay to the Panhandle's Wakulla Springs, the manatee is no stranger to Florida residents. The aquatic mammal has been on the federal endangered species list since the 1967, but that may soon change. The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, or FWS, announced it will conduct a yearlong review of the endangered status of the West Indian Manatee and its subspecies, the Florida manatee and Antillean manatee. The review will determine whether the mammal will be reclassified as a “threatened” species.

FWS spokesman Chuck Underwood says the distinction between the two statuses doesn’t affect the protections of the animal.

“Reclassifying from endangered to threatened really focuses more on where they stand towards recovery," Underwood says. "They either lean closer to extinction or closer to being recovered. So threatened would be a better status to be.”

This status review is a response to a lawsuit from a libertarian law group called the Pacific Legal Foundation. The group represents Save Crystal River, a Citrus County-based nonprofit that originally petitioned for the downlisting in 2012.

Pacific Legal Foundation attorney Christina Martin says the group is holding the FWS accountable to the law. The federal Endangered Species Act requires periodic reviews of animals on the endangered and threatened lists.

“What we’re hoping is that the Fish and Wildlife Service will, first, follow the law, and secondly, it really puts everyone on notice that the manatee is recovering, and may one day not warrant the protections of the Endangered Species Act,” Martin says.

Patrick Rose, executive director of the Save the Manatee Club, rebukes the notion of improving conditions for the manatee. Despite high population numbers, manatees suffered a record 829 deaths in Florida last year, according to the Florida Fish And Wildlife Conservation Commission. Rose says  population growth is unsustainable, and the animal’s habitat is in danger.

“Essentially all of the elements of their habitat are at really high risk going forward in the future. If you look at the warm water that the manatees depend on in the winter time, whether it’s now from the power plants or from the natural springs, there’s no security in that," Rose says. "In fact, it’s predicted we’d be losing almost all of those artificial warming power plants in the next 50 years.”

But Save Crystal River Vice President Steve Lamb says no one in his community wants to see manatees harmed either.

“We’re all about manatee protection, we always have been. Our community had the first manatee plant in the state,” Lamb says.

He says his organization is concerned with preserving fishing and tourism opportunities in Crystal River’s King’s Bay. They took legal action, he says, to prevent the FWS from making all of Crystal River an idle-water zone. He believes doing so would threaten the Crystal River community.

“The problem is you would shut off the commercial fisherman, the recreational boaters, you would shut off the guides. The list goes on and on," Lamb says. "It would economically kill our community if that river were ever to be made idle.”

Rose, however, is skeptical the manatee can survive with threatened status. He says while the animal's protections will remain the same, those to its habitat will not.

“As you start to, and I think in this case, erroneously, determine that the population is more secure than it is, it invites more and more attacks on the existing protections without ensuring that they will be held in place," Rose says.

"They will tell you that this downlisting will not take away protections. The reality is, in more than my 40 years working with endangered, threatened and imperiled species from many different roles, I know for a fact that’s what follows down that slippery slope.”

The FWS has opened a 60-day public comment period as it conducts the manatee’s status review. The agency encourages the public to submit commercial and scientific information both electronically and by mail.