It's official: Feds want to reclassify manatees as something less than endangered

Published Feb. 11, 2016

Nearly 50 years after Florida manatees appeared on the first-ever federal endangered species list, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service says it's time to call them something other than endangered.

"We believe the manatee is no longer in danger of extinction," U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service deputy regional director Michael Oetker said in a Miami news conference Thursday.

The agency says manatees are now merely "threatened" — still in need of protection but no longer in such dire circumstances, a change that in Florida can affect everything from development regulations to funding for enforcement.

"It's like taking manatees out of intensive care and putting them in a regular care facility," said Jim Valade, the agency's manatee coordinator.

The decision is largely based on a computer model about the species' future that does not include key information about threats it faces.

Federal and state wildlife officials repeatedly said the change in status would have no effect on the boat speed limits and refuge boundaries now in place. The executive director of the Save the Manatee Club doesn't buy it.

"I know how much pressure they're going to be under to make changes" in the regulations, said Pat Rose, a former state and federal manatee biologist who now runs the organization. "This will facilitate a rollback in protections and produce a higher level of manatee mortality."

Rose — who said a lawsuit is not out of the question — is not alone in criticizing the decision. U.S. Rep. Vern Buchanan, R-Sarasota, fired off a letter.

"I urge the agency to withdraw its misguided and premature proposal immediately and help save this treasured species." U.S. Sen. Bill Nelson, D-Fla. also objected.

Boaters killed more manatees last year, 87, than they did in 2014. The all-time record is 97, set in 2009. Experts consider boats to be the greatest man-made threat to manatees. That's why, as a result of a 2000 suit by environmental groups, so many new speed zones and no-entry zones were set up to protect them.

Florida consistently leads all other states in the number of boats registered — 899,000 as of 2014.

Boaters and developers have been pushing to have manatees dropped from the endangered list since 1999. They contend that aerial surveys show there are more manatees than ever before, and therefore less of a need to restrict boats and waterfront dock construction.

The Fish and Wildlife Service announcement Thursday echoed that argument, asserting that the manatees' status ought to be changed because of "significant improvements in its population and habitat conditions, and reductions in direct threats."

Wildlife officials cited aerial survey numbers that rose from 1,200 manatees in 1991 to more than 6,000 last year. However, the biologists who conduct those surveys have repeatedly warned about their accuracy, comparing counting manatees from the air to counting popcorn while it pops.

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As for the threats, Valade cited a 2015 report led by computer modeling expert Michael Runge of the U.S. Geological Survey. As Valade put it, that report described the outlook for manatees as "pretty rosy."

Yet in a Thursday interview with the Times, Runge said his modeling did not take into account two recent, massive die-offs of hundreds of manatees.

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. In 2013, the record was broken again as 829 died.

Runge's computer model also does not specifically deal with the loss of habitat due to waterfront development, except as it might affect the water flow into the springs where manatees seek warmth during cold snaps, he said.

When federal officials were drawing up the original endangered list in 1967, they consulted a manatee expert, the head of the National Aquarium. The expert was St. Petersburg native Craig Phillips, who was also the first curator of the Miami Seaquarium.

Phillips warned them then not to list manatees as endangered based on their population size because they are so hard to count. He said they belonged on the endangered list because of the dire threats they faced. Those threats — speeding boats and loss of habitat — are the ones they face today.

Thursday's announcement was pushed along by a lawsuit filed by a libertarian law firm, the Pacific Legal Foundation, acting on behalf of a group from Citrus County that dislikes some of the most recent regulations proposed there. Foundation attorney Christina Martin said her clients are happy.

"Their goal was not to end existing regulations, but to prevent adoption of some proposals that were excessive and not in line with the improvements the species has seen," she said.

The foundation has repeatedly pointed out that in 2007 the Fish and Wildlife Service released a report saying manatees could be reclassified as threatened, based on an earlier Runge study. When the foundation petitioned the agency in 2012 for the downgrade, officials blamed budget cuts for postponing that step. In 2014 the foundation sued.

"It's taken eight years . . . to get the government to follow up on its own experts' recommendation to reclassify the manatee," Martin said.

Contact Craig Pittman at Follow @craigtimes.