On the eve of a landmark vote by the state wildlife commission to take manatees off the endangered list, Gov. Charlie Crist asked commissioners to postpone their decision today.
"I want to be sure these wonderful, docile creatures are as protected as possible," Crist said in an interview Tuesday. He said he was not telling the commission how long to delay the vote, but"I don't want to hurry to a decision. ... I want to put the brakes on it."
Rodney Barreto, chairman of the Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission, predicted the board will do what the governor asks. He could not say how long the delay might last.
The commission has spent more than a year working toward today's scheduled vote: preparing a biological status report, ordering staffers to prepare a management plan for the species and taking public comment.
The commission was poised to take the final step: take manatees off the endangered list, reclassify them as merely "threatened," and adopt a management plan to get them off the list entirely.
However, because a record 416 manatees died in Florida last year, and because there is still no reliable way to count how many are left, "I believe a more prudent course of action at this time would be to postpone consideration of the proposed change in the status of this species," Crist wrote in a letter dated Monday to Barreto.
Boating advocates who have been working for nine years to get manatees off the list were not happy with Crist.
"I'm disappointed," Ron Pritchard of Citizens for Florida's Waterways said Tuesday.
But Crist's move delighted Save the Manatee Club executive director Pat Rose, who has been lobbying the governor's staff to get him to weigh in on the issue.
"The governor listened and we're grateful," Rose said.
Crist said he intervened because, even though he is a boater, he has long felt "sympathy and empathy" for manatees. He noted that as a state senator he sponsored a bill to require all boats to have propeller guards.
As of July 31, 218 manatees have died this year from boating collisions, Red Tide, cold stress, and other causes.
In his letter, Crist also noted that there are several new state wildlife commissioners, and said postponing the decision "will also allow the new members of the commission more time to evaluate this complex issue and ensure that they, along with the rest of the commission, are fully prepared to vote on an item of such gravity."
Crist drew widespread criticism last month when he appointed a developer, a developer's attorney and a construction executive to the seven-member wildlife commission. The other commissioners are all in the development and construction businesses.
Rose said the controversy over the pro-development appointments helped focus Crist's attention on what the wildlife commission was about to do with manatees. "It helped to raise it on his radar screen," Rose said.
The Save the Manatee Club also has been lobbying Crist's staff to blunt proposed budget cuts at the wildlife commission. The agency is set to vote Friday on slashing 90 positions from the division that enforces boating speed zones and virtually eliminating statewide manatee rescue and recovery programs. Crist said he hopes those cuts won't be necessary.
Manatees are now listed as endangered by both the state and federal governments. The two lists offer different protections. Manatees have been on the federal list since one was first prepared in 1967.
Florida has more than 1-million registered boats and tourists bring in 40,000 more annually. As of July 31, 48 manatees had been killed by boats this year. Last year it was 86.
Throughout the 1990s the number of manatees killed by boats rose so rapidly that environmental groups joined forces with animal welfare activists to sue the state and federal agencies that were supposed to protect the species.
The lawsuit settlements produced a wave of new rules that angered boaters and waterfront developers. Meanwhile an aerial survey found more than 3,000 manatees, the most ever.
The Coastal Conservation Association of Florida, a sport-fishing group, paid a biologist $10,000 for a report that argued the state's manatee population is "growing at a healthy rate" and the increase in boating-related deaths was a sign that there were more manatees, not that they were in greater peril.
The group used the report in a 2001 petition to the state wildlife commission to get manatees off the endangered list.
A year later state biologists announced that, although half of all manatees could disappear in the next 50 years, the manatee no longer fit the state's newly adopted definition of "endangered." Last year the state wildlife commission voted to proceed with reclassifying manatees.
Five months ago, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service announced that though manatees had not met the standards in the "recovery plan" for reviving the species, the staff would recommend changing their federal status from endangered to threatened. Complete removal from the federal list could come as early as 2009.
The Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission is scheduled to meet today through Friday at the St. Petersburg Hilton at 333 First St. S., St. Petersburg. The meeting will begin each day at 8:30 a.m. The discussion about manatees is scheduled for today, while budget cuts are on the agenda for Friday.