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Manatees may lose 'endangered' status

The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service said Monday Florida's manatee population has rebounded and recommended reclassifying the species from "endangered" to "threatened."

By CRAIG PITTMAN and BARBARA BEHRENDT
Published April 10, 2007


The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service said Monday Florida's manatee population has rebounded and recommended reclassifying the species from "endangered" to "threatened."

"It's not on the brink of extinction," said Dave Hankla, field supervisor over the Jacksonville office of the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service.

But to reach that conclusion, federal wildlife officials had to ignore scientific criteria they put in place in 2001 and assume the threats facing manatees will not increase.

A computer model produced for the federal study released Monday shows a 50 percent chance that the current statewide manatee population of about 3,300 could dwindle over the next 50 years to just 500 on either coast.

"That's just not good news," said Patrick Rose, executive director of the Save the Manatee Club. "That's a two-thirds reduction. That's just alarming."

The 80-page federal report takes a mostly upbeat tone, at one point saying: "In Florida, manatees are exhibiting positive growth, good reproductive rates, and high adult survival throughout most of the state."

James "Buddy" Powell, a Crystal River native considered one of the world's foremost manatee scientists, said that "sounds like a bit of an exaggeration."

"In the foreseeable future for manatees, there is a likelihood of a population decline," predicted David Laist of the U.S. Marine Mammal Commission, which advises Congress on issues related to manatees.

That's in part because the segment of the manatee population occupying the area from Pasco County south to Monroe County is declining - and makes up nearly half the state's entire population of manatees.

The biggest factor in determining manatees' future, not just in Southwest Florida but across the state, is boats. Last year, speeding boaters killed 86 manatees, a 43 percent increase over the number killed 10 years before.

"An increase in watercraft mortality could reverse all the trends in this report," Hankla said. And in the Southwest Florida region, "Current regulatory mechanisms limiting watercraft collisions may not be sufficiently effective," the report said.

But it recommends no new regulations or speed zones to cut down on the number of boat collisions. Nor does it recommend tightening controls on development of marinas and boat docks in manatee habitat - an approach that generated tremendous controversy when the wildlife agency tried it in 2002.

On the contrary, Hankla said his agency may now begin relying on the report's findings about the manatee's improved status when it reviews permits for development.

In a conference call with reporters Monday, Hankla emphasized that the report, one of a series of five-year status reviews on various endangered species, will not automatically trigger a change in the manatee's classification. But he said that process could begin in a few months, depending on his office's workload.

The report says manatees could be removed from the list of protected species altogether in three years.

News of the agency's recommendation was good news to the state's boating interests, who have been pushing for a change in the manatee's legally protected status since 1999.

Bonnie Basham, a lobbyist for the Boat Owners Association of the United States and the Florida Council of Yacht Clubs, greeted the news with a "Yay." When paired with the state wildlife commission's expected move this summer to downgrade manatees to threatened on the state list, she said, "That's a double 'Yay.' "

For years, a set of criteria established by a panel of scientists in 2001 to judge whether the species was gaining ground has stood in the way of changing the manatee's federal status.

To be reclassified as threatened required reducing five threats, including the number of boat-related deaths, as well as achieving certain population benchmarks in each of four regions of the state. So far, neither of those has occurred.

For this review, Hankla said, his staff ignored those criteria and instead followed the legal definitions of "endangered" and "threatened."

He said they "treated this review as if the current criteria would not suffice" because some scientists have criticized some of the population-related criteria as outdated. So far, there has been no effort made to write new, updated criteria.

However, the threats included in that 2001 report are the same ones mentioned in the new review: boats, Red Tide and the possible closing of some power plants, which discharge warm water that the manatees flock to during cold weather.

In a news release, Save the Manatee Club and another group, Public Employees for Environmental Responsibility, contended that the report was overseen by an Interior Department assistant secretary named Todd Willens. Until the fall elections ousted his boss, Willens was staff director for Rep. Richard Pombo, a California Republican who was a frequent and outspoken critic of the Endangered Species Act.

But Hankla said that was not true. "There's been no Washington influence of any kind," he said.

Fast Facts: Time line of manatee legislation
1893:
Florida Legislature passes first manatee protection law threatening a fine of $500 and/or six months in prison for anyone who kills or molests one without a permit.
1949: First report of a manatee seen with scars from a boat propeller.
1967: First federal law listing certain species as endangered, including manatees.
1972-73: Two new federal laws, the Endangered Species Act and the Marine Mammal Protection Act, make it a crime to kill, harm or harass manatees.
1978: Legislature declares entire state to be a manatee sanctuary, regulating boat speeds in 13 areas, and names manatee as the official state marine mammal.
1999: Lobbyist for the National Marine Manufacturers Association proposes taking manatees off endangered list to battle against restrictions on boating and dock building.
2000: Coalition of environmental groups sues both state and federal agencies for failing to protect manatees. Settlements result in new rules that anger boaters.
2001: Aerial survey finds 3,276 manatees, the largest number ever.
2006: State wildlife commission votes to start the process to drop manatees from "endangered" to "threatened" on state list. Final vote slated for this summer.
April 9, 2007: U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service recommends downlisting manatees to threatened under federal rules, and perhaps taking it off the list entirely by 2010.

For more information
To read the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service's five-year review on the status of manatees, click here.

Manatee deaths
Manatees killed in the past decade, including by boats:

Year

Killed by boats Total
1996 60 415
1997 54 242
1998 66 232
1999 82 268
2000 78 273
2001 81 325
2002 95 305
2003 73 380
2004 69 276
2005 80 396
2006 86 416