Broward News

Koch-Funded Lawyers Help Boaters Tell Manatees: Drop Dead

Boys must have fast-moving toys. And they absolutely have to play with them in the water. If any slow-moving marine mammals get murdered or mangled as a what? How many manatees do we need anyway?! Freedom!!!

That's the situation in Citrus County, where the Koch Bros.-funded Pacific Legal Foundation ("Rescuing Liberty from Coast to Coast") and the charmingly-named Save Crystal River, a coalition of well-connected owners of waterfront property, have joined in a suit against the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, demanding that the protection status of the iconic Florida mammal be downgraded.

See also: Manatee Body Count: 2013 Shattered All the Records

The Koch lawyers landed in Citrus County in December 2012, when they filed a petition with the feds to change the manatees' status under the Endangered Species Act from "endangered" to "threatened." The first means a species is "in danger of extinction;" the second that it is "likely to become endangered within the foreseeable future." Protections for endangered species are fixed by law; those for threatened species can be reduced by administrative decision.

The manatee was first listed as endangered in 1967. But a 2007 FWS internal review found that the species had recovered enough to be downlisted. (Things have changed considerably since then.) The PLF petition argued that the feds are legally obligated to follow through on the internal review. On July 2 the FWS agreed to consider whether to implement the findings of the 2007 review. Those findings, however, are "only a recommendation," according to Chuck Underwood, of the FWS' North Florida office, which has begun a 12-month review of the downlisting request.

The waterfront property owners, like Save Crystal River president Bob Mercer, have been battling against manatee protection since 2011. Warning that the feds were "seizing control of Florida waters," they contested the creation of the "Kings Bay Rule." (Kings Bay, on whose shores most of the SCR members live, is home to Florida's largest manatee population, more than 500 of the creatures.)

"They claim it's about the manatee. It's not," SCR member Mac Williams wrote at the time. "It's about the radical environmentalists manipulating the USF&WS."

The Kings Bay Rule was implemented because FWS found that:

there is substantial evidence showing that certain waterborne activities would result in the taking of one or more manatees and that certain waterborne activities must be restricted to prevent the taking of one or more manatees in Kings Bay. In making this rule final, we considered the biological needs of the manatee, the level of take at these sites, and the likelihood of additional take of manatees due to human activity at these sites.

("Taking" means "to harass, harm, pursue, hunt, shoot, wound, kill, trap, capture, collect, or attempt to engage in any such conduct.")

In opposing the Kings Bay rule, SRC advocated, according to the Citrus County Chronicle:

+ Amending the proposed rule, titled "cooperation," as follows: "It is understood that FWC and or Florida law enforcement authorities are not authorized to enforce federal rules in federal manatee refuges, including activities which have been permitted in accordance with 68A 27.007 F.A.C.;" + Amend Section 2 of the proposed rule titled "take of endangered and threatened wildlife" to add the following language: "permitting for incidental take shall adhere to standards set forth in Florida statute to prohibit regulations and restrictions of permitting which would have undue interference with the rights of fishers, boaters and water skiers. "Permitting for individual take may be authorized by the Commission and the November 2010 changes to the text removing permitting for incidental take from the authority of the Commission shall be stricken." + And for the removal of all references to the area called King's Bay and Citrus County as appropriate for all waters now under Federal Manatee Refuge designation as of March 16, 2012.

The Citrus County dispute is one of many environmental battles in which PLF, whose Atlantic Center is in Palm Beach Gardens, has enlisted to argue, in their words, for "common sense in environmental regulations" (which almost invariably means fewer protections).

PLF argues that it is simply asking that the feds follow their own rules and consider downlisting the manatee. We think that's disingenuous, and in an email to PLF attorney Christina Martin, we wrote:

If the manatee is downlisted, the road is then clear to ask that restrictions be lifted or limited or abated, right? Certainly your clients aren't going to all this trouble simply as an academic exercise or to make an ideological point.

Martin replied that her clients "were concerned about some of the restrictions proposed by the USFWS that would have made it difficult for people to fish or put down anchors and that added new restrictions on boat use in the summer months."

Or as SCR member Jack Reynolds, a Citrus County banker, put it in an editorial, in July 2011:

I love the opportunity to experience the outdoors and the native wildlife and understand conservation needs, but when is enough ENOUGH?!? I moved into Citrus in the '80s largely due to the outdoor opportunities and I specifically selected property outside of the "no wake" zone so I could access the gulf quickly, enjoy the pristine, crystal clear water and ski from just outside my back porch.

Ski on, Jack. Manatees be damned.

Want to know more about where Koch bros. money is going? Check out Koch Brothers Exposed for free online.

Fire Ant -- an invasive species, tinged bright red, with an annoying, sometimes-fatal sting -- covers South Florida news and culture. Got feedback or a tip? Contact [email protected].