Manatee habitat designation clears hurdle

— The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service is taking the next step toward a possible revision to the boundaries for critical habitat for the endangered manatee in Southwest Florida.

Conservation groups filed a petition in December 2008 saying the critical habitat designated in 1976 in 17 Florida counties, including Lee and Collier, needs to be revised to reflect new scientific information, including manatee's use of warm water refuges and seagrass losses.

In a decision published in the Federal Register today, the Fish and Wildlife Service determined that the petition is sufficient enough to merit further review.

A decision on how to proceed, if at all, with a new critical habitat rule is due by early 2010, Fish and Wildlife Service spokesman Chuck Underwood said.

Under the current designation, critical habitat amounts to a long list of general geographic areas.

The petition proposes more specific delineations of the geographic areas and identifies habitat features that deserve special attention, such as food sources, travel corridors, fresh water sources and shelter.

The proposed revision would enlarge the area where projects, such as marinas, would encounter an additional permitting hurdle.

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