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Feds Move to Take Manatees Off Endangered Species List

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Federal authorities from the Fish & Wildlife Service say that with an estimated 6,300 West Indian manatees in Florida, and 13,000 worldwide, the critters are well-off enough to be removed from the endangered species list and considered "threatened" instead. They had been listed as endangered since 1973.

The agency yesterday formally introduced a proposed rule to downgrade the status of the critters. But it comes at the behest of a right-wing nonprofit group. Environmentalists have vowed to fight the change before a final decision is made in 12 months. 

The Pacific Legal Foundation, whose goofy-sounding mission is "rescuing liberty from coast to coast," formally petitioned the feds in 2012 to change the manatees' status, and also twice sued to force the change. The groups focuses on limited government and property rights. 

The group's attorney, Christina Martin, who is based in Palm Beach Gardens, said in a statement, "The bad news is that federal officials took so long to accept the good news about the manatee’s improvement. It has taken eight years and two lawsuits to get federal officials to follow up on their own experts’ recommendation to reclassify the manatee. Over that time, the manatee population has grown substantially, while federal officials have been sitting on their hands. We are glad to see that the manatee is doing well, but all taxpayers should demand that the government do much better, going forward, in following the requirements of the Endangered Species Act...Hopefully, these officials won’t have to be sued again to be forced to do their job and give the manatee the proper classification that their own studies call for.”

But environmental groups like the Center for Biological Diversity say that manatees still needs the most stringent protections. “The Florida manatee has come a long way but is still threatened by boat strikes, cold stress and undiagnosed mass die-offs in the Indian River Lagoon” said Jaclyn Lopez, the Center's Florida director. “In the face of these chronic and mounting challenges, the Service should not move forward with downlisting without a proven, viable plan for further reducing boat strike mortality and for preserving vital warm water habitat.”

Lopez's groups says that a 2014 report found that at least 668 manatees died from collisions with watercraft in Florida between 2008 and 2015. 

In a detailed letter to the FWS in 2014, the Save the Manatee Club explained that the outlook for the creatures might be too rosy, because crucial data about manatee mortality was left out of scientific projections. It noted that the creatures still face many threats in Florida — climate change, habitat loss, increased watercraft, and poor water quality management (too much fertilizer runoff, phosphorous, and animal waste). Also, it noted, enforcement of environmental laws since 2009 has faced a precipitous decline. 

Katie Tripp, the Save the Manatee Club's Director of Science and Conservation, wrote in a op-edlast year, "I have read the federal Endangered Species Act many times. What I wonder is if the folks at FWS have read it, because the criteria for listing status is based on a number of things, but a minimum population estimate isn’t among them. One key factor the agency IS supposed to consider is whether current and future threats to the species and its habitat are under control." She hinted at a lawsuit: "So FWS, we’ll either see you in the meeting room or the court room. The choice is yours." 

The Club said it would be "engaging our Action Team members" to fight for the manatee, and that interested parties could sign up for action alerts

The FWS will accept public comments on the matter for 90 days.  There will also be a public hearing on February 20 in Orlando. See more details here regarding the FWS's position and how to submit feedback. 

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