Manatees' status detached from goals of recovery plan

Federal officials say they wanted "flexibility."

Published April 15, 2007

Six years ago a panel of scientists labored to come up with a list of criteria for determining whether manatees had rebounded and were no longer endangered.

But federal wildlife officials loosened the criteria in the name of flexibility.

Manatees haven't even met the flexible criteria, much less the more stringent ones. Yet last week, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service recommended manatees be downgraded from endangered to threatened.

Experts on the Endangered Species Act say it's not against the law for the agency to ignore the official criteria in a species' recovery plan. But it's unusual.

The wildlife service "has always taken the view that recovery plans and their criteria are not legally binding requirements," said attorney Michael Bean, author of The Evolution of National Wildlife Law. He pointed out a 1996 federal court case over Florida panthers in which a judge ruled that recovery plans are "for guidance purposes only."

University of Idaho law professor Dale Goble, co-editor of The Endangered Species Act at Thirty, agreed: "Recovery plans are not legally enforceable; they are advisory."

What is unprecedented is changing the status of a species that hasn't met any recovery plan goals, Bean and Goble said.

This isn't the agency's first controversial move involving reclassifying an endangered species without meeting its criteria. In December the wildlife service proposed dropping the West Virginia northern flying squirrel off the list entirely, even though critics say the agency has no idea how many squirrels there are.

"This is part of a pattern by the Fish and Wildlife Service to ignore recovery plans and good science," said Judy Robb of the Save Our Squirrels Coalition.

Listed in 1967

Now Rep. Nick Rahall, D-W.Va., who chairs the House Committee on Natural Resources, plans to convene a hearing next month about endangered species. Also spurring Rahall's interest is a report released this month by the inspector general of the Interior Department that a political appointee with no science training repeatedly altered reports by agency scientists concerning endangered species.

Manatees have been on the endangered list since the first one in 1967 because biologists said they once ranged from the Carolinas to Texas but persisted only in "heavily used boating areas" in Florida.

That hasn't changed. The number of boats registered in Florida topped 1-million in 2005, an increase of more than 27,000 over 2004. Last year, speeding boaters killed 86 manatees, the second highest number in a decade.

In 2001 an aerial survey counted more than 3,300 manatees, the most ever. When boating groups questioned whether the species still deserved protection, the Fish and Wildlife Service responded that "significant threats to the species, including human-related mortality, injury, and harassment, and habitat alteration," were still a problem.

The law requires that for every endangered species the agency must draw up a recovery plan with criteria for when a species can be taken off the list. Scientists spent a year working on the criteria for the 2001 manatee recovery plan.

They divided the manatee population into four smaller groups: Northwest, Southwest, Atlantic and Upper St. Johns River. The criteria they settled on said that the manatee could be downgraded to threatened if 20 years of data showed three conditions were met in all regions: The survival rate of adults was 94 percent; at least 40 percent of adult females had calves; and the total population grew by at least 4 percent a year.

Switch in criteria

The scientists included a requirement for a "95 percent confidence interval" to ensure the numbers were not faulty and the population was really increasing.

When the Fish and Wildlife Service published the recovery plan, though, it had changed two of the three population criteria to a lower threshold and deleted the confidence intervals.

The new criteria said the survival rate could be 90 percent instead of 94, and said the rate of population growth in those four areas could be "equal to or greater than zero." The plan said that if manatees had achieved those criteria over 10 years, and there was progress on protecting manatee habitat and reducing boat collisions, then they could be reclassified as threatened.

Members of the science panel were stunned. The new criteria were not nearly as tough as what they had recommended.

Although he praised the panel as "the world's best scientists," the Fish and Wildlife Service official in charge of the plan, Dave Hankla, said the agency tossed out their recommendations so it would have "a little bit more flexibility." He scoffed at suggestions it was designed to speed up removing manatees from the endangered list.

Last week, Hankla was the official explaining to reporters why his agency ignored those criteria in recommending manatees no longer be listed as endangered. He said they "treated this review as if the current criteria would not suffice" not because manatees had failed to meet them, but because scientists say some of them are outdated.

The 2001 recovery plan included other criteria that dealt with decreasing the threats facing manatees from boats and loss of habitat. None of those criteria have been met, either, and the new report ignored them as well.

Hankla said the recommendation to change the manatees' status was based on how the legal definitions matched up with a new computer model analyzing future threats. He said the results matched the definition of a threatened species: not in immediate danger of extinction but it could become endangered in the future.

Bean said using a computer model instead of the criteria "strikes me as a bit novel."

Times staff researcher Caryn Baird contributed to this story.