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Manatees get another reprieve
Officials were set to take the sea mammals off the endangered list but instead ordered a new review.
By CRAIG PITTMAN, Times Staff Writer
Published December 6, 2007
An adult manatee feeds on algae off of the seawall in Coffee Pot Bayou. The State of Florida counted 1,300 manatees in its survey in 1991 and about 3,000 in recent years.
[Scott Keeler | Times]
[Scott Keeler | Times]
The commissioners did take one step supported by everyone: approving a management plan for manatees that calls for better enforcement of boating speed zones. Last year a record 416 manatees turned up dead, 86 of them killed by boats, the second-highest total since the state began keeping records.
KEY LARGO -- Comparing Floridians' love for manatees to their love for Santa Claus, state wildlife commissioners indefinitely postponed a decision Wednesday to take the animals off their endangered species list.
Commissioner Ken Wright said he felt like the judge in Miracle on 34th Street being asked to rule that Santa Claus didn't exist. Like Santa, the manatee is an icon that enjoys widespread public support, he said.
No matter what the evidence says about how fast a sleigh can go or whether reindeer can fly, he said, "all that science makes no difference if at the end public policy wants to recognize that Santa exists."
Instead, the Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission asked its staff to review and suggest revisions for the state's entire ranking system. Such a review will affect not just manatees but also gopher tortoises, eagles, red cockaded woodpeckers and a host of other creatures.
To take manatees off the endangered list without such a review, said Wright, might endanger something else: "the credibility of this commission and our governor."
Commissioners had been poised to vote on changing manatees from "endangered" to "threatened," but a host of opponents -- including Gov. Charlie Crist, who appointed four of the seven commissioners -- urged against that. Some 28,000 people around the globe bombarded the commission with e-mails urging them to keep manatees listed as endangered.
The state's boaters and builders have been pushing for the change since 1999. Since then the wildlife commission has been scheduled five times to vote on changing manatees' listing status but balked each time at the last minute.
Changing the listing for manatees would mean more than merely altering a label. It would likely have ramifications for land-use decisions throughout the state's waterfront areas where manatees could lose habitat, Commissioner Kathy Barco said.
The state's current listing criteria seem to warrant the change because the state's efforts to protect manatees have bolstered the population.
"This is an overwhelming slam dunk on this issue," contended Steven Webster of the Florida Marine Contractors Association.
The state counted 1,300 manatees in its survey in 1991 and about 3,000 in recent years. The numbers, though, can fluctuate year-to-year because of conditions at the time of the aerial surveys, including visibility from the aircraft and murky water.
Wright said after the meeting that if it were up to him, there would be just one category: "creatures that we are concerned about."
The commissioners did take one step supported by everyone: approving a management plan for manatees that, among other things, calls for better enforcement of boating speed zones.
Manatees have been classified as endangered since the 1960s because of lost habitat and because they are frequently hit by speeding boats. About two-thirds of manatees carry scars from being hit. Two of the more than 30 speakers who attended Wednesday's meeting showed commissioners grisly pictures of badly scarred manatees.
"We call this 'The Survivors Club,'" said one, Tracy Colson of Crystal River.
Last year a record 416 manatees turned up dead, 86 of them killed by boats, the second-highest total since the state began keeping records. Boaters and builders contend that's a sign that there are more manatees overall.
Save the Manatee Club executive director Patrick Rose said he would not call the deferral of the listing decision a victory. "I see it as an opportunity for the right thing to happen," he said.
The Save the Manatee Club and the state's other environmental groups have long criticized the state's listing process, which was enacted in 1999 in an attempt to squelch controversy over its previous method of deciding which species deserve the "endangered" label.
To placate legislators who were unhappy with the old system, the wildlife commission came up with new criteria based on a system created by the World Conservation Union, an international scientific group. The new system called for a scientific review, as well as preparation of a management plan.
But the state's categories don't match the categories in the international system. The World Conservation Union has four categories: critically endangered, endangered, vulnerable and near threatened. The state has only three: endangered, threatened and species of special concern.
So while the state's listing system said manatees should be lowered to "threatened," the World Conservation Union in September raised manatees from "vulnerable" to "endangered."
In 1999, Wade Hopping, a lobbyist for the home builders' association, proposed taking manatees off the endangered list as a way to block new legal restrictions on land and water use. His proposal took off in 2001 when a fishing group, the Coastal Conservation Association of Florida, formally petitioned for the change.
The organization's executive director, Ted Forsgren, said he took that step because environmental groups wanted the state to block access to prime fishing areas. After seeing the vote delayed yet again, Forsgren said he wasn't surprised.
"Given the concern expressed by the governor, that was one of the best options they had," he said.
Rose, too, credited Crist with turning the tide. The governor asked commissioners to delay a scheduled vote in September, and this week said he said a vote to change the manatee's status "would not please me. More importantly, it would disappoint the people of our state."
The wildlife commission staff will report back in February on how long its review of the species listing process will last. Commission Chairman Rodney Barreto joked that it would take another seven years.
FAST FACTS: Imperiled species
The Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission puts imperiled species into three categories:
Endangered species are at imminent risk of extinction and have lost at least 80 percent of their population during the past 10 years. There are 41 such species, including Florida panthers, humpback whales, American crocodiles and Kemp's Ridley sea turtles.
Threatened species have a high risk of extinction and have lost at least 50 percent of their population during the past 10 years. Examples of the 27 listed species include loggerhead sea turtles, bald eagles and Everglades minks.
Species of special concern face a moderate risk of extinction and have lost at least 30 percent of their population over the past decade. There are 50 species on the list, including gopher frogs, little blue herons and burrowing owls.