TALLAHASSEE — Following more than a decade of discussions, arguments, stops and starts, state wildlife officials this week are scheduled to change the way they classify endangered and threatened species.
Wildlife managers say changes expected to be brought before the Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission will better protect species before they reach the level of distress that would put them into the federal endangered species category.
Further, the new rules will standardize the process by which new species of concern can obtain protection by the state based on scientific review. FWC commissioners are scheduled Wednesday begin a three-day meeting in Pensacola Beach.
Lauded as a major and long-sought step in better protecting the state’s endangered wildlife, the latest draft of the proposal circulated earlier this month has raised some concern of Florida Audubon, which says the most recent draft includes language not seen in previous versions.
The new version includes changes requested by hunting and fishing groups worried that the new rules would otherwise subject their constituents to prosecution for activities that “merely” annoy species of concern. The version adds assurances that “nature-based recreational activities may be managed to be compatible with such species protection measures…”
Florida Audubon’s Julie Wraithmell, who has been involved in the negotiations, said Friday the version took her by surprise and was not the same agreement Audubon had signed onto. Wraithmell plans to meet with FWC official Elsa Haubold next week to discuss the proposed changes.
“The danger is that softening it for one group may make it less appealing to another,” Wraithmell said.
Pat Behnke, a habitat and species management official at FWC, says the changes were made in part to calm concerns raised by United Waterfowlers of Florida, a hunters group that has been involved in the rule-making process. But Benhke said the changes are also meant to reduce ambiguities that existed in previous drafts. As importantly, the rule will continue to be refined as needed after it goes into effect.
“This is an ongoing process,” Behnke said.
Florida wildlife officials, environmentalists, hunting and fishing groups have been trying for the past 15 year to make changes to the state’s endangered and threatened species list. The state now has a three-tiered system that offers increased levels of protection for species that are of concern, threatened, or endangered.
The latest push to revise the rules began in 2007 following uproar over a FWC decision the year before to reduce protections for manatees by moving them from the federal endangered list and placing them in the threatened category. The change was never made after a coalition of environmental groups complained.
The new set of rules would accept the federal endangered species list and add species previously targeted by the state into a “threatened” category of protection. The plan then requires the state to write management plans for all affected species.
Environmentalists are behind efforts to put more science and less emotion into the selection and management of threatened and endangered species as well as those species that may not be threatened nationally but are of concern in Florida. Any last-minute changes after so many years are going to raise suspicions.
E-mail Michael Peltier at firstname.lastname@example.org.