WASHINGTON (CN) - Despite continuing threats, the Fish and Wildlife Service has proposed to downlist manatees from endangered to threatened status under pressure from a "limited government" legal group.
Friday's proposed action to change the listing status under the Endangered Species Act for the iconic animals cites increased numbers of manatees as the basis for the proposal, even as the animals face increasing threats from climate change, algal blooms, extreme cold weather events and boat strikes.
A still undetermined threat resulted in the death of over 100 manatees in one Florida lagoon in 2013.
The Florida manatee, a sub-species of the West Indian manatee, was listed as endangered under the ESA in 1967, and the listing was expanded in 1970 to include the Antillean manatee in the Caribbean Sea and northern South America, which is also a sub-species of the West Indian manatee.
The total estimated population of West Indian manatees in the Americas is just over 13, 000 animals. However, according to the proposal's chart, only two populations out of 17 are considered to be stable, in Honduras and the U.S, with only the U.S. entry listed as stable/increasing. The other entries for population estimates are listed as unknown and/or declining.
After the Service announced that the Pacific Legal Foundation petition to downlist might be warranted, Dr. Katie Tripp, Director of Science and Conservation for the Save the Manatee organization, noted in an editorial that "the agency appears fixated on the fact that there are more manatees now than there used to be. 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."
The PLF, a "minimum government" watchdog organization according to their website, represents Save Crystal River, Inc., an organization of residents from Crystal River, Fla., which advocates "for property rights and a quality of life that preserves the proper balance between nature and human activity."
Ironically, the Service appears to have given itself a loophole regarding the Crystal River area, according to the agency's statement.
"As part of its balanced approach to the recovery of the manatee, the Service recognizes that even as it proposes to update the manatee's status under the ESA with this proposal, it may at times need to strengthen protection for the species in specific local areas," Cindy Dohner, the Service's Southeast Regional Director, said. "For example, the Service is reviewing comments on a proposal to establish greater protection for manatees at Three Sisters Springs, which is part of the agency's Crystal River National Wildlife Refuge north of Tampa, Fla."
Dr. Tripp told Courthouse News on Friday that she and her organization are "very concerned with the Service's priorities."
"Sixty percent of the U.S. population of manatees depends on warm water output from power plants during the winter," she said. "It is intuitive that those plants will be shut down at some point. The Service claims that revising the critical habitat designation and preparing a warm water contingency plan for the manatees' future are precluded by higher priorities, but they had enough time to spend two years on this down-listing proposal."
Dr. Tripp's observation was seconded by a statement from the Center for Biological Diversity, another conservation group.
"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" Jaclyn Lopez, the organization's Florida director said. "In the face of these chronic and mounting challenges, the Service should not move forward with down-listing without a proven, viable plan for further reducing boat strike mortality and for preserving vital warm water habitat."
Manatees not only require warm water refuges in the winter, they also need freshwater for drinking. Climate change could cause increased intrusion of saltwater into natural freshwater springs used by the manatees, according to the action, as well as more frequent and intense algal blooms and tropical storms. Although the Service acknowledges that the future effects of climate change on the manatees are uncertain, the agency considers these threats to be "moderate."
At issue in the downlisting proposal is the definition of "endangered," meaning in danger of imminent extinction. Because the overall numbers of manatees have increased, the agency postulates that the West Indian manatee currently better fits the definition of a "threatened" species, meaning that, if "current threats remain constant indefinitely," it is unlikely to become an endangered species within the foreseeable future throughout all or a significant portion of its range.
The Service also notes that if the proposal is finalized, the manatees would still be protected under the Endangered Species Act as a threatened species, and that the downlisting is not irreversible.
The West Indian manatee is also protected under the Marine Mammal Protection Act, the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species of Wild Fauna and Flora, and various state laws, although the agency admits that "full implementation of these international and local laws is lacking, especially given limited funding and understaffed law enforcement agencies."
Comments are requested by April 8 and a public hearing is scheduled for Feb. 20.
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