The sea cow morphed into a sacred cow of sorts over the past half century. But Florida’s most iconic creature could soon flop down a peg from the status it’s held since America’s original list of endangered species was created in 1967.
The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service expects by fall 2016 to propose a rule to reclassify the Florida manatee from “endangered” to a less-serious status of “threatened.”
The move first would require a public input process and could face lengthy legal challenges.
The wildlife service assures the change wouldn’t dismantle slow-speed zones or lessen other protections for the species and only reflects the improvements to its numbers in recent years. But manatee advocates worry the reclassification would forge a slippery slope of deregulation that would eventually gut vital protections before serious threats to the species have been addressed.
The feds assert it won’t.
“Generally, the level of protection doesn’t change,” said Jeff Fleming, a spokesman with the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service. “In some cases there are some opportunities to do some different things … with exemptions.”
The manatee’s listing status governs how state and federal agencies handle boating speed limits, dock and dredging permits and access to areas manatees frequent.
Word of the potential reclassification came via a Nov. 19 notice within an 181-page semiannual agenda of rules that federal agencies intend to review or develop between fall 2015 and fall 2016. The agenda lists the best guesses of what the wildlife service will do. But the reclassification to “threatened” is by no means a done deal, wildlife service officials said.
“We believe that a reduction in threats has resulted in an improvement in the species’ status such that the endangered designation may no longer correctly reflect the current status of manatee,” the notice states.
In July 2014, the wildlife service announced the agency would move forward on a status review for the manatee, in response to a 2012 petition to reclassify the species, from “endangered” to “threatened.”
The wildlife service announced it would conduct the status review, just two months after a libertarian law foundation sued the agency over the matter. In May 2014, thePacific Legal Foundation sued the wildlife service for continuing to list the manatee as “endangered,” despite the agency’s own research that said the species should be reclassified as “threatened.”
The Pacific Legal Foundation is pursuing the lawsuit on behalf of Save Crystal River Inc. That nonprofit citizens group was concerned about new manatee idle-speed rules and expanded manatee refuge areas in Kings Bay in Citrus County.
As supporting information, PLF cited the wildlife service’s 2007 West Indian Manatee Five-Year Review, which had recommended the status change. PLF also cites a stock assessment by the Fish and Wildlife Service in January 2014 that estimated the minimum current manatee population at 4,976 manatees, including 4,834 in Florida.
Citing budget and manpower issues, the wildlife service had balked at reclassifying the manatee. It also was busy responding to PLF’s 2006 lawsuit that forced the agency to review the listing status of hundreds of other species, as required by theEndangered Species Act, including 89 species in Florida.
This February, state spotters counted a record 6,063 manatees in Florida, topping the previous record set in 2010 by almost 1,000 manatees.
Opponents of slow-speed boating zones and other manatee restrictions say record counts in recent years bolster the case for reclassifying to “threatened” and easing some boating and permitting restrictions.
But manatee advocates say sea cows face too many long-term uncertainties to change their status now, and 6,063 manatees are not enough of a buffer against those threats.
“We don’t believe they have done a sufficient job to ensure that the recovery that’s occurred is going to be able to be reasonably secured,” said Pat Rose, executive director of the Save the Manatee Club, a environmental group based in Maitland.
The government has no concrete plan for weaning manatees off the warm-water discharges from power plants that keep sea cows farther north in the winter, subjecting them to dying from cold stress, Rose said. He also worries about other threats yet to be sufficiently dealt with, including seagrass die-offs and toxic algae blooms and the runoff pollution that fuels them.
“There’s not near enough being done to stop continued pollution,” Rose said.