Manatees' status downgraded to threatened

The state wildlife commission also revoked the bald eagles' threatened designation and upgraded gopher tortoises and a rare type of crayfish.

Published June 7, 2006

WEST PALM BEACH -- Manatees, long a symbol of Florida’s wild heritage, are no longer endangered but merely threatened, the state wildlife commission decided Wednesday.

The unanimous and controversial decision climaxed a day-long public hearing during which the commission also dropped bald eagles off the list of protected species and upgraded the listing of gopher tortoises and a rare type of crayfish.

But it was manatees that drew 200 people to the commission meeting, five years after boaters began pushing to change the status of manatees.

Environmental activists said the vote will lead to greater peril for the state’s official marine mammal because funding for research and enforcement will be cut and boating restrictions might be eased.

Wildlife commissioners rejected those assertions.

“I don’t think anything we do today, and maybe in the next five years, is going to drive this species to extinction,” said wildlife commissioner Kathy Barco.

The next step is writing a management plan that is sure to spark further debate.

Wildlife commissioner David Meehan of St. Petersburg, who made the motion to reclassify manatees, said the plan should require boaters to pass a strict licensing test.

And Pat Rose of the Save the Manatee Club said his group will push for “everything including the kitchen sink,’’ particularly new restrictions and greater enforcement of speed zones from Tampa Bay south to the Ten Thousand Islands.

The management plan is scheduled to be completed in February. The threatened classification takes effect after the commission adopts the plan.

The new designations reflect a new classification system that says only species that are in imminent threat of extinction should be considered endangered. A coalition of 17 environmental and animal welfare groups last week formally challenged that process.

“The criteria is flawed and misleading to the public,” warned Martha Collins, the Tampa attorney representing the coalition, which includes the Save the Manatee Club, the Sierra Club and the Humane Society.

She noted that the agency’s own staff found in 2003 that the new standards could require dropping even Florida panthers off the endangered list, even though there are only 80 left.

An estimated 3,000 manatees swim in Florida waterways. Computer models have found no chance the species will become extinct in the next century, but the population could decline by at least 50 percent over the next 45 years. 

Thus the threatened label.

The state’s new species listing system is based on one used by the World Conservation Union, an international science group. But the commission changed the names of the World Conservation Union’s categories to match the ones in state law.

As a result, the World Conservation Union’s “critically endangered” category became Florida’s “endangered” category, and the union’s “endangered” became the equivalent to “threatened.”

The architect of the World Conservation Union guidelines, University of California at San Diego biology professor Russell Lande, wrote three years ago that for Florida to make those changes “contradicts both common sense and plain English.”

This is no academic debate, say critics. Animals that merit being on the state’s endangered list tend to be first in line for state funding for buying environmentally sensitive land and conducting scientific research, according to a 2002 study by the Florida Ornithological Society.

Downlisting implies success and the opportunity to shift focus (along with limited budgets of staffing and dollars) to other, more critical species,” wrote biologist Vic Doig, who works with red-cockaded woodpeckers at Goethe State Forest near Dunnellon.

 Wildlife agency officials said the manatees’ new designation will not ease regulations, despite lobbying by boating activists.

 After a series of speakers complained that the commission vote would decrease protection for manatees, Chairman Rodney Barreto replied, “I don’t think it’s fair to rally the crowd here with that when that’s not what’s being proposed.”

John Sprague of the Marine Industry Association of Florida said the commission should reexamine regulations.
“We need to tweak our speed zones,” Sprague said. “Some may be effective but some may not be.”

Two speakers representing a pro-boating group called Citizens for Florida’s Waterways said they believe there are actually more than 3,000 manatees and there is no real danger of any decline in the population. Steven Webster compared the state’s computer models to a popular computer game called SimEarth, in which the players get to play God, joking that “I think the Smite button got hit a few times too much.”

Meanwhile Suzanne Tarr, a former state manatee biologist who is nowa teacher, told her former bosses that they were like record-breaking baseball slugger Barry Bonds, because their accomplishment of taking manatees off the endangered list will be accompanied by an asterisk.

“We’re not here because the manatees are doing better,” Tarr said. “We’re here because we changed the definition of recovery.”

Floridians have fretted about manatees’ survival for more than a century. A writer in 1884 decried their “wanton destruction” by hunters. In 1893 the state Legislature prohibited killing them.

Manatees were on the original federal list of endangered species in 1967 because they once ranged from the Carolinas to Texas but persisted only in “heavily used boating areas” in Florida.

Last year, the second-worst on record for manatee deaths, 80 of the 396 manatees that died were killed by boats.

A coalition of environmental groups sued the state and federal government six years ago over the rising manatee deaths, contending the agencies were not complying with the Endangered Species Act. The legal settlements that resulted in 2001 imposed strict new regulations on boat speeds and dock-building that produced a major backlash.

So in 2001, Ted Forsgren of the fishing group Coastal Conservation Association of Florida petitioned to drop manatees from the endangered list.

Forsgren said he filed the petition because the state wildlife agency was in the process of designating certain waterways as “safe havens” for manatees, curtailing boat traffic. Before adding new regulations, Forsgren contended, the state should determine if manatees needed that much protection.

Manatees are still classified as endangered by the federal government. The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service is conducting its own review, which should be done by year’s end, federal officials say.

The agency is also poised to drop eagles off the federal endangered list. In Florida, which has one of the largest eagle populations in the South, the number of eagles has increased 300 percent since the 1970s.

But gopher tortoises are in serious trouble.

Wildlife commissioners upgrade the tortoise from a “species of special concern” to “threatened.” Thousands of tortoises have been wiped out by developers, who under current state rules can simply pave over their burrows after writing a check to the wildlife agency.

While commissioners said they want to get rid of that practice, they made it plain that they do not see themselves as an impediment to the development of the state.

“We’re not in the growth management business,” Barco said. “We’re in the wildlife protection business.”