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    Proposal could remove manatees from list of endangered species

    The marine mammals have been protected for three decades, but a federal agency may change their status.

    By CRAIG PITTMAN

    © St. Petersburg Times,
    published November 1, 2001


    Federal wildlife officials said Wednesday they will consider taking manatees off the endangered species list in 2003, unveiling a plan that their own science advisers say may actually lead to the decline of the popular marine mammal.

    Being on the endangered list for the past three decades has given the manatee legal protection, which has led to controversial restrictions on boating in areas where manatees congregate as well as limits on waterfront development in manatee habitat.

    The manatee's endangered status has come under fire since the most recent attempt to count manatees found 3,276 of them around the state, about 1,000 more than had ever been counted before. However environmental advocates contend that what counts is how many manatees die every year. So far this year 276 manatees have died, 67 of them from being hit by speeding boats.

    A new plan for the manatee recovery, put together by the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, says manatees can be taken off the endangered list even if the species shows zero population growth.

    The agency's panel of science advisers had recommended shooting for at least a 4 percent annual growth rate to ensure manatees do not disappear.

    The federal plan, which takes effect immediately, also says that if 90 percent of all manatee adults survive every year then manatees are doing fine.

    Federal officials think 10 percent of the population, or between 200 and 300 of them, can die every year and it will not endanger the species' future.

    But the most recent computer modeling studies by manatee scientists have found "that would almost certainly result in a declining population," said Lynn Lefebvre of the U.S. Geological Survey, who chaired the federal science panel.

    Manatees reproduce very slowly, she said, so a 10 percent annual death rate is too high. "You can't afford to lose that many adults," she said.

    Environmental groups blasted the Fish and Wildlife Service announcement as a Halloween horror story, offering what they called "all tricks and no treats" for a species which has been on the endangered list since the list was created.

    "The FWS is ignoring the experts," marine biologist Naomi Rose of the Humane Society of the United States said. "This is not adhering to the best available scientific information standard required by law . . . . The ultimate question is, why would the government convene an expert scientific panel and then choose to ignore its findings."

    Federal officials defended their decision to reject their scientists' advice, noting they had adopted every other recommendation from Lefebvre's science panel.

    Previously they have said they rejected the scientists' advice because they wanted more flexibility. On Wednesday, they said they did so because the 4 percent growth rate had not yet been published in scientific literature -- an assertion that one member of the science panel, St. Petersburg marine biologist James "Buddy" Powell, dismissed as a mere excuse.

    Dave Hankla, field supervisor of the FWS endangered species office in Jacksonville, said the plan "left the door open" to change the numbers should there be some reason to change. "We maintain our obligation to use the best science," he said.

    This year's higher manatee count and the prospect of tighter regulations because of environmental groups' lawsuits has created a backlash among boating groups, several of which now advocate taking the manatee off the endangered list.

    A sport-fishing group paid a biologist $10,000 for a report that argued that the manatee population is "growing at a healthy rate." That report was submitted to the state Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission as part of a petition to take the manatee off the state's endangered list.

    State wildlife commissioners agreed Wednesday to reevaluate the manatee's status with an eye toward taking it off the endangered list. Commissioners could vote to change the manatee's status as early as January 2003 -- around the time federal officials will be launching their own reevaluation, according to the plan unveiled Wednesday.

    "The manatee is getting attacked on all fronts today," said Jessica Larson, a University of Central Florida student who led a campus protest against the federal plan.

    A coalition of environmental groups that settled a lawsuit against federal officials this year concerning manatee protection announced last week they think the Fish and Wildlife Service has violated the agreement and failed to protect the manatee. They said they would ask a judge to enforce the agreement. But Fish and Wildlife Service officials said Wednesday they do not agree with that move.

    "We believe we have lived up to the spirit and intent of the settlement," regional director Sam Hamilton said. "We think we're making great progress."

    - Information from the Associated Press was used in this report.

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