Advertisement
  1. News

Manatees no longer classified as an endangered species, but still a threatened one

Manatees had been on the federal endangered list since the list was issued in 1967.
Published Mar. 31, 2017

Florida's most famous endangered species, the manatee, no longer deserves to be called endangered, say federal wildlife officials.

They announced Thursday that they are dropping manatees from the endangered list and reclassifying them as merely threatened.

The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service took this momentous step the day after celebrating "Manatee Appreciation Day" on its social media accounts.

The change was made despite a record number of manatees killed in Florida by boaters in 2016. For the first time ever, more than 100 manatees died after being run over by boaters.

"While it is not out of the woods, we believe the manatee is no longer on the brink of extinction," said Larry Williams, head of the agency's Vero Beach office, at a news conference. "This is truly a success story."

The decision goes against the recommendations of manatee biologists concerned about the continuing loss of manatee habitat to waterfront development. Instead of science, the agency's decision "seems to be based on hope," said biologist James "Buddy" Powell, who has studied manatees for more than 40 years.

Nearly 87,000 comments and petition signatures opposing the change were submitted during the 90-day public comment process. Only 72 people said they were in favor.

Federal officials acknowledged their decision was spurred by a lawsuit filed by a libertarian group called the Pacific Legal Foundation. And it's likely to lead to a lawsuit by the Save the Manatee Club to overturn it. One Florida congressman has already promised to ask new Secretary of the Interior Ryan Zinke to reconsider.

"The decision to weaken protections under the Endangered Species Act threatens the survival of the manatee, one of Florida's most beloved animals," said U.S. Rep. Vern Buchanan, R-Longboat Key. "It needs to be reversed."

Because the state's own endangered list copies the federal one, this means manatees will be automatically knocked down a notch on the state list too, said Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission executive director Nick Wiley.

Although federal officials promised changing the manatees' classification won't weaken their protections, Pat Rose of the Save the Manatee Club predicted this will be followed by a concerted effort to roll back habitat protection and other measures.

The Pacific Legal Foundation represents a group from Citrus County — where manatee-related tourism has been a mainstay of the economy — that dislikes some recent manatee protection regulations there. Its goal has been to prevent any more.

The manatee, a plump and whiskery mammal that breathes air, is an unlikely figure to spark so much controversy. As big as a couch and shaped like a yam with flippers, it's a placid vegetarian with no natural enemies except humans.

Fossils show manatees have existed in Florida for centuries. The first written account of someone seeing a manatee comes from the log of Christopher Columbus, who noted that mermaids were not as attractive as he had been led to believe.

Ever since Jacques Cousteau featured them in a 1972 television documentary called Forgotten Mermaids, the manatee has become a popular symbol of Florida's natural bounty, not to mention the centerpiece of several tourist attractions and a mascot for many schools.

Manatees have been classified as endangered since the first federal endangered species list was issued in 1967. They were included on that list not because of their numbers, which were unknown, but because of the threats they faced from being clobbered by speeding boats or having their habitats destroyed by waterfront development.

"The threats that landed them on the list have been reduced," Jay Harrington, who heads up the federal agency's Jacksonville office, said Thursday.

However, 104 manatees were run over and killed by boaters last year, the first time that number has topped 100 since the state began tracking it in the 1970s. Widespread dieoffs caused by cold weather and toxic algae blooms have also taken a toll.

Meanwhile, a controversial lawsuit filed in 2000 by a coalition of environmental groups against state and federal wildlife agencies led to settlements requiring new boat speed zones and manatee sanctuaries. Biologists have credited those measures with spurring an increase in the population. More than 6,000 manatees were counted in the most recent statewide aerial surveys.

Florida's boating and building interests have been trying for 18 years to knock manatees off the endangered list, in hopes of blocking further restrictions on boating speeds and development. No one succeeded until the PLF suit.

The PLF was founded in the 1970s in California to counter groups like the Sierra Club and the Environmental Defense Fund and challenge regulations. It filed the manatee lawsuit in 2014.

"I am glad to hear that the federal government is finally formally acknowledging … the manatee is on the mend and no longer in danger of extinction," PLF attorney Christina Martin said. "This is a victory for everyone who believes that the government must follow the requirements of the law."

But the latest fight over the manatees is just getting started. Rose said the Save the Manatee Club is "looking very, very closely at how this decision comports with the law and whether it relies on the best available science, and upon first review, it does not."

That means, he said, "we need to hold their feet to the fire."

Contact Craig Pittman at craig@tampabay.com. Follow @craigtimes.

ALSO IN THIS SECTION

  1. Clearwater Mayor George Cretekos listens to a speaker share an opinion about a city matter during a city council meeting at Clearwater City Hall in Clearwater, Fla. on Thursday, April 20, 2017.  On Thursday, the Clearwater City Council rejected the mayor's resolution urging lawmakers to ban assault weapons.  [Times files] TIMES FILES  |  Tampa Bay Times
    However, the city did pass a resolution calling for more modest gun control measures.
  2. An American Airlines Boeing 737 Max 8 aircraft approaches Miami International Airport for landing in March. Bloomberg
    The 60-year-old veteran airline employee told investigators he was upset that union contract negotiations had stalled.
  3. Maurice A. Ferré at his Miami home earlier this year. JOSE A. IGLESIAS  |  Miami Herald
    He served as mayor for 12 years and set the stage for Miami to become an international city.
  4. Lilly Beth Rodriguez, left, Laura Robertson and Linda Lamont work on a Habitat for Humanity house in north Pasco. [Times (2013)]
    The increase is expected to happen in the first half of next year. CEO hopes other nonprofits follow suit.
  5. Terry Spencer carries his daughter, Trinity, through high water on 59th Street near Stewart Road in Galveston, Texas, Wednesday, Sept. 18, 2019, as heavy rain from Tropical Depression Imelda caused street flooding on the island. JENNIFER REYNOLDS  |  AP
    Although the amount of predicted rainfall is massive — forecasters say some places could see 40 inches or more this week.
  6. This April 2001 photo, which appeared in a newsletter from the West Point Grey Academy, shows a costumed Justin Trudeau, his face and hands darkened by makeup, attending an "Arabian Nights" gala. The academy is a private school in Vancouver, B.C., where Trudeau worked as a teacher before entering politics. (West Point Grey Academy/The Canadian Press via AP)
    A few Southern politicians responded to similar scandals recently with denials, apologies, and promises. Most of them have managed to stay in office.
  7. The number of single-family homes sold in the Tampa Bay area during August rose 2.8 percent when compared with the same month last year, according to a monthly report from Florida Realtors. (Times file photo)
    The midpoint price in the bay area rose to $250,000, which is still lower than the state and national median prices.
  8. This April 14, 2019 file photo shows a western meadowlark in the Rocky Mountain Arsenal National Wildlife Refuge in Commerce City, Colo. According to a study released on Thursday, Sept. 19, 2019, North America’s skies are lonelier and quieter as nearly 3 billion fewer wild birds soar in the air than in 1970. Some of the most common and recognizable birds are taking the biggest hits, even though they are not near disappearing yet. The population of eastern meadowlarks has shriveled by more than three-quarters with the western meadowlark nearly as hard hit. (AP Photo/David Zalubowski) DAVID ZALUBOWSKI  |  AP
    “People need to pay attention to the birds around them because they are slowly disappearing,” said the study’s lead author.
  9. Michael Robert-Jose Harbaugh has pleaded guilty in the 2017 slaying of Safety Harbor neighbor David Sommer, a former reporter. Harbaugh also pleaded guilty to a charge he tried to have a witness in the case killed. [Pinellas County Sheriff's Office]
    Former journalist David Sommer was killed in 2017. Michael Harbaugh, 42, agreed to serve 30 years in prison for his crimes.
  10. Rep. Susan Valdes, D-Tampa, during a Feb. 7, 2019, meeting of the House PreK-12 Appropriations subcommittee. [The Florida Channel]
    ‘One test should not determine the rest of your life,’ Rep. Susan Valdes says.
Advertisement
Advertisement
Advertisement