For more than a decade, boaters who chafed at the proliferation of speed limits on the water have contended that the Florida manatee no longer deserves to be called an endangered species.
On Friday, the libertarian Pacific Legal Foundation formally petitioned the federal government to make that change, dropping manatees down a peg to be classified as "threatened."
It turns out that federal officials had been thinking about doing just that. The process of changing manatees' classification to "threatened" will likely begin in late spring or early summer 2013, said Chuck Underwood of the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service.
But the clients represented by the Pacific Legal Foundation, a group called Save Crystal River, may not be too happy with the outcome. Save Crystal River opposes new federal boat speed regulations in Citrus County's Kings Bay, and Underwood said changing the manatees' status won't lead to a rollback of those new rules.
"The whole reason why we would reclassify manatees is because these conservation measures are working," Underwood said.
Aerial surveys have found that the population of manatees in Florida waters appears to be increasing, reaching about 5,000 in recent years. As the population has increased, boaters have argued that that fact alone should be reason enough for taking manatees off the endangered list.
A 2001 study cited by the Pacific Legal Foundation's petition contended that there was "virtually no real probability" of manatees going extinct in the next century. State and federal biologists have since debunked the central thrust of that study, which a pro-boating group paid $10,000 to have done by a environmental consultant who specialized in dock permits for developers.
Manatees have been on the federal endangered list since the first list was approved in 1967. Documents from that era show they were not classified as endangered based on their numbers, which were unknown, but because of the threats they faced from being hit by boats and losing their habitat to waterfront development.
Despite 50 years going by, those threats have not been abated, said Pat Rose, the manatee biologist who is executive director of the Save the Manatee Club.
"Watercraft deaths are staying at the highest levels," he said, predicting about 80 manatees will die from being clobbered this year. Boats killed 88 manatees last year, 83 the year before and a record 97 in 2009.
A 2003 computer model produced by the U.S. Geological Survey found that if boats killed more than 12 manatees a year, it would imperil the future of the species. In the past 40 years, only two boaters have ever been prosecuted for killing a manatee.
Rose contended the loss of habitat has actually gotten worse because many of Florida's springs, which provide manatees with a haven of warmth when winter turns cold, have seen a decrease in flow in the past decade. Cold weather killed 118 manatees last year, and a record 282 in 2010.
But in 2007, Fish and Wildlife Service officials released a status review for manatees that declared that the population had grown and the threats had been abated, and therefore the agency could change them to threatened instead of endangered. Since that status review was released — provoking a swirl of controversy — the agency has been gathering more data to justify such a change, Underwood said.
Save Crystal River and the Pacific Legal Foundation have grown weary of waiting for the Fish and Wildlife Service to take action, said foundation attorney Alan DeSerio, especially given the new Kings Bay speed limits.
"They're seeing that as somewhat of an unreasonable restriction," DeSerio said. The petition is to "sort of give the government a little bit of a nudge," he said, but if the response is unsatisfactory the two groups could then file suit.
Craig Pittman can be reached at [email protected]