Federal officials announced Tuesday that they have agreed to consider removing Florida manatees from their list of endangered species. Instead, they said, the iconic mammals — which have been on the list since it was created in 1967 — may belong in the less protective "threatened" category, even though the number of manatees killed last year set a new record.
The potential change in the manatee's status is being considered under pressure from the Pacific Legal Foundation, a libertarian group that generally opposes all environmental regulations. In this case it's working on behalf of Save Crystal River Inc., which opposes new federal rules requiring boats in Kings Bay to slow down during the summer as well as winter.
"We're glad to see the Fish and Wildlife Service is finally acknowledging our petition," foundation attorney Christina Martin said.
Before deciding what to do, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service is inviting public input on the idea by Sept. 2.
The manatee, a native Florida marine mammal, is as big as a couch and shaped like a yam with flippers. Ever since Jacques Cousteau featured them in a 1972 television documentary, they have become an extremely popular symbol of the state's natural bounty and a key part of several tourist attractions. The manatee's homely image is depicted on everything from license plates (which pay for state manatee research) to barbecue sauce labels and liquor bottle holders.
Not everyone is a fan. The state's boating and development interests have been trying since 1999 to get manatees taken off the endangered list in hopes of blocking further restrictions on boating speeds and waterfront development.
The Pacific Legal Foundation has been the latest to try to get manatees' status changed. In a petition it sent the wildlife agency in 2012, the foundation contended that instead of being listed as endangered, manatees should be lowered to the category of "threatened." The threatened category still offers manatees some legal protection from loss of habitat and other threats, but not quite as much as the endangered list.
The foundation sued the agency this year because federal officials had failed to take any action on its petition. Agency officials blamed budget shortages due to the congressional sequestration.
In the petition, the foundation contended manatees should no longer be considered endangered because the most recent aerial survey counted 4,831 of them in Florida's waterways, which is about 1,800 more than were counted in a 2001 aerial survey.
Biologists generally caution against relying on those aerial survey numbers as if they were human census records. They compare the process of counting manatees as they rise to the water's surface to breathe to trying to count popcorn as it pops — you can't be sure you're seeing every single one.
When manatees were originally included on the federal endangered species list in 1967, records show, it wasn't because of their population size. Instead, they were put on the list because they faced dire threats from pollution, the loss of habitat and speeding boats — all of which remain threats today.
The foundation's petition also cited a 2001 study that contended that there was "virtually no real probability" of manatees going extinct in the next century. State and federal biologists have debunked that study, for which a pro-boating group paid $10,000 to an environmental consultant who specialized in dock permits for developers.
However, seven years ago the Fish and Wildlife Service released its own report saying manatees could be reclassified as threatened. That report was based on a computer model that said manatees are unlikely to go extinct in 100 years. But the report also gave them a 50 percent chance of dwindling to just 500 on either coast over the next 50 years. The foundation also cited that report.
Pat Rose of the Save the Manatee Club contended that things have changed since that report came out.
"There may have been some optimism in 2007," he said, "but we're in a completely different situation today."
As evidence, Rose pointed to two events. In 2010, a record number of manatees died — 766 — far surpassing the old record of 429 set in 2009. Nearly 400 were killed by a long cold snap in January 2010 and a second one in December.
Then, last year, the record was broken again as 829 died, hundreds of them from a Red Tide bloom or a mysterious ailment in the Indian River Lagoon that may be tied to pollution. That's more than 15 percent of the estimated population.
Martin, the foundation's attorney, acknowledged that the high number of deaths in 2013 could pose an obstacle against changing the manatee's status.
"I do agree that there's a problem," she said. "If things have changed (since 2007), then so be it."
Craig Pittman can be reached at email@example.com. Follow @craigtimes.