HOMOSASSA SPRINGS — Manatees Amanda and Electra won't be losing their happy home, at least not for awhile.
The planned release of the manatees from a state park in February has been put on hold until 2011, according to a joint announcement Friday by the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service and the Florida Department of Environmental Protection.
Amanda and Electra are at the center of a debate among environmental activists and officials over what is best for long-captive or born-in-captivity manatees.
Long-standing federal policy is to rehabilitate and release endangered species, which groups such as the Save the Manatee Club strongly support. However, the Fish and Wildlife Service has lost track of some of these so-called "naive'' manatees when they were released, while others have not lived.
A public outcry in recent months against the release of the two manatees prompted a resolution by the Citrus County Commission opposing the action and a push by state Sen. Mike Fasano to stop the release.
Fasano visited the Ellie Schiller Homosassa Springs Wildlife State Park recently with Attorney General Bill McCollum to see the mammals.
The state DEP heard the concerns about whether the two mammals were prepared for release, agency Secretary Michael Sole said Friday.
"It was definitely the right thing to do to delay this whole process,'' said Pat Rose, executive director for the Save the Manatee Club. "There are several things that still need to be known for these two manatees and potentially others slated for release.''
On Christmas Eve, Amanda, in captivity for 36 years, and Electra, in captivity for nine, will be removed from the isolation tanks at the park where they have been kept for the last several months and returned to the spring run where the park's other captive manatees live.
Next year will be spent examining the future of Homosassa Springs as a manatee rehabilitation facility and determining how it fits with the Fish and Wildlife Service's goal of releasing captive manatees in the wild, Sole said.
The park has a special role to play in rehabilitating injured and ill manatees because it is a natural setting, Sole said. Amanda and Electra will eventually be confined to a portion of the spring run, have less contact with people and be taught about food sources, he said.
The park boasts an annual average attendance of 370,000. Visitors are able to see manatees from above in the headwaters of the Homosassa River as well as below water level in a special "fishbowl'' observatory.
Rose has recommended a broader team of experts be involved in deciding releases. He also wants more medical information on the manatees, such as whether Amanda can still reproduce, whether Electra has conquered a buoyancy issue created by her old injury, and whether either can survive in the wild in their overweight condition.
The decision on Amanda and Electra will not affect the planned releases of other long-term captive animals, said Chuck Underwood, spokesman for the North Florida Fish and Wildlife Service office.
Barbara Behrendt can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or (352) 848-1434.