After receiving about 5,000 written comments, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service has decided to make permanent most of its proposed measures for protecting manatees that seek winter refuge in Citrus County's Three Sisters Spring.
The move comes about three weeks after a story went viral about the agency's decision to temporarily close human access to the spring because more than 300 manatees had crowded in. One animal-centric website, the Dodo, headlined its story: "300 Manatees Throw Massive Party In Wildlife Refuge, Literally Shut The Place Down."
Manatees are extremely sensitive to cold. It can kill them. The wildlife agency first proposed the new measures because when the water gets cold, hundreds of manatees seek warmth in the spring, where the water temperature is a constant 72 degrees.
Three Sisters Springs is the only confined-water body in the United States open to the public while wintering manatees are present, agency officials said.
"This is the only place that I know of that we have a tourism industry built around getting up close and personal with an endangered species,'' former Crystal River National Wildlife Refuge manager Michael Lusk said last year.
As a result of the mass of manatees, the number of snorkelers and boaters visiting the springs has nearly doubled from 67,000 permitted visitors in 2010 to more than 125,000 in 2013.
In such crowded conditions, canoes and kayaks can't help but bump into the resting manatees, disturbing them. Unthinking tourists stick their cameras in the manatees' faces and snap flash photos, startling them. To the federal agency, that's no way to treat an endangered species that's just trying to stay alive.
In December, the agency proposed rules blocking the public from paddling canoes, kayaks and inflatable floats into two-thirds of Three Sisters Springs from December through March. The sections that would be off-limits are the eastern and western sections known as Pretty Sister and Little Sister. The one proposed rule the federal agency dropped involved hours for when the swimmers could enter the spring. The rule would have limited that access to between 10 a.m. and 5 p.m.
However, because of "tidal influence on manatee movements," agency officials decided that "limiting visitor use to these hours was overly restrictive and unsubstantiated," an agency news release says.
Instead, refuge managers will allow open and close access to swimmers based on "observations of tidal cycles and manatee numbers in Three Sisters Springs," the agency said.
Craig Pittman can be reached at email@example.com. Follow @craigtimes.