Legal group sues to take manatees off endangered list

Published May 1, 2014

A libertarian law group called the Pacific Legal Foundation is suing the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service to force it to take manatees off the endangered list.

The foundation is representing a group called Save Crystal River, which opposes new federal rules requiring boats in Kings Bay to slow down during the summer as well as winter.

The foundation contends that instead of being listed as endangered, manatees should be lowered on the list to the category of "threatened," pointing out that the most recent aerial survey counted 4,831 of them in Florida's waterways, about 1,800 more than in 2001.

Biologists generally caution against relying on those survey numbers as if they were human census records, comparing the process to counting popcorn as it pops.

Foundation attorney Christina M. Martin, in a news release, conceded that changing manatees' status "won't change protections for the species" — such as the agency's rules on making boats in Kings Bay slow down year-round.

In Florida the foundation has previously argued against rules requiring the dimming of beach lights to help baby sea turtles, and won a U.S. Supreme Court case last year regarding state regulation of wetlands.

Manatees have been on the federal endangered species list since the list was created in 1967. Records show they were not listed because of their numbers, but because of the threats from pollution, the loss of habitat and speeding boats — all of which remain threats today.

A record number, 829, died last year, most from a Red Tide bloom or a mysterious ailment in the Indian River Lagoon that may be tied to pollution.

Seven years ago the Fish and Wildlife Service released a report saying manatees could be reclassified as threatened, based on a computer model that said they are unlikely to go extinct in 100 years.

The model also gave them a 50 percent chance of dwindling to just 500 on either coast over the next 50 years.

When the foundation petitioned the agency to follow through and drop manatees from the endangered list, the agency said federal budget cuts would postpone that step.

"Unfortunately, litigation has become necessary in order to make the government follow the findings of science and obey its own rules," Save Crystal River vice president Steve Lamb, managing director of Nature Coast Development, said in the release.