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The governor asks wildlife commissioners to keep the species on the endangered list.
By CRAIG PITTMAN, Times Staff Writer
Published December 4, 2007
[Douglas R. Clifford | Times]
For more than six years, Florida's boaters and builders have pushed for the state wildlife commission to take manatees off the endangered list. Commissioners are set to vote on the controversial move Wednesday.
To the chagrin of the boaters and builders, Gov. Charlie Crist wants the commission to reject the change.
"I would not favor that," Crist said in an interview Monday. "It would not please me. More importantly, it would disappoint the people of our state."
Crist, an avid boater, opposes changing the manatee's designation because "it would put this creature in jeopardy." He has made his position clear to commissioners, said Crist, who appointed four of the seven members.
Commission Chairman Rodney Barreto said he will give the governor's concerns "a lot" of weight. "He's raised some issues," said Barreto, a Miami lobbyist and developer.
But he would not predict what the commission would do. "I think we'll have a great debate on that," Barreto said Monday.
Crist's opposition stirred grumbling among the groups pushing for the change.
"It's obvious why the governor is concerned about this change, from the standpoint of public opinion," said Ted Forsgren of the Coastal Conservation Association of Florida, an anglers' group that filed the formal request for the change in 2001. "The question is: Do we want a decision driven by emotion or by science?"
But Save the Manatee Club executive director Patrick Rose called it a courageous stand.
This marks the second time Crist has intervened on the issue. The wildlife commission was set to vote on the listing change in September, but delayed it at Crist's request. The governor showed up at the meeting to thank commissioners for doing as he asked.
As a result, Crist was invited to meet Save the Manatee Club co-founder Jimmy Buffett when the singer performed in Tampa last month. "He was kind enough to allow me to introduce him," Crist said.
Afterward the two talked backstage for about 10 minutes, with Buffett urging Crist to continue resisting efforts to change the manatee's designation.
"Apparently that's why he reached out," Crist said.
Manatees have been listed as endangered since the first such list was created in the 1960s. In 2000, concerned about a sharp increase in the number of manatees killed by boats, environmental and animal welfare groups sued state and federal officials.
Settling the suits led to new restrictions on boating and development, which upset many among the state's 1-million boaters, as well as dock builders and waterfront developers.
A 2001 aerial survey of manatees counted more than 3,000, more than had ever been spotted before, fueling arguments that manatees no longer deserved to be called "endangered."
Meanwhile the state wildlife agency adopted a new, controversial process for listing endangered species. It used the same criteria as the World Conservation Union, but while the global group has four categories, the state used only three.
As a result, wildlife agency staffers say manatees qualify as merely "threatened" under the state's new criteria - even though three months ago the World Conservation Union raised manatees to the "endangered" category on the global scale.
And last year proved to be the deadliest ever for manatees, with 416 dying, 86 of them killed by boats, the second-highest total since the state began keeping records. In announcing that news in January 2007, Barreto contended that thanks to state efforts the manatees were still moving "away from the threat of imminent extinction."
In August, Crist drew sharp criticism from around the state when he appointed four members to the wildlife commission, all from the building or development businesses.
At the time, Crist said, "Just because somebody has business interests does not mean that they don't care about and have a deep love for natural Florida."
Rose of the Save the Manatee Club said Wednesday's vote will test if Crist was right about his appointees: "It doesn't matter who they are, but what they do."
Times staff researcher Caryn Baird contributed to this report.
The Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission will meet at the Marriott Key Largo Wednesday and consider:
e_SBlt Reclassifying manatees from endangered to threatened.
e_SBlt Final approval of a management plan for manatees, identifying measures the state can take to eliminate the threat of extinction and "measurable goals" for the manatee's recovery.
A final draft of the proposed plan can be found at myfwc.com/manatee/.
[Last modified December 3, 2007, 23:46:34]