Feds say manatee no longer endangered

Chad Gillis

Manatees are no longer endangered?

The federal government lowered the listing status of the West Indian manatee Thursday after being petitioned by a California property rights firm.

Biologists and experts at the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service held a press conference in Miami to announce the decision. Federal and state regulators say the status change to threatened is a sign that the Endangered Species Act is working as intended.

"Now that we have more than 6,000 manatees, they no longer fit in the category of facing immediate extinction," said Larry Williams, with the FWS. "The protection won’t change at all, whether it’s listed under the ESA as endangered or threatened."

The reclassification comes after Pacific Legal Foundation, in 2014, filed a suit against the agency for failing to act on a 2012 petition, in which PLF — representing nonprofit group Save the Crystal River Inc.— asked FWS to consider downlisting the manatee from endangered to threatened. Save the Crystal River enlisted the help of PLF after manatee boating zones were proposed for Kings Bay, which would have increased driving time for boaters living in the Crystal River area.

"The public will not see any change," said Jim Valade, the FWS representative for Florida. "The reclassification from endangered to threatened will ensure that all protections remain in place and we will continue to enforce manatee zones throughout the state."

Winter programs start at Manatee Park

Unlike land animals like panthers — which must have three separate populations of 240 or more to be removed from the ESA list — manatee recovery is based on eliminating or controlling threats, mostly watercraft deaths. Protections must also be in place for warm-water refuge sites, freshwater spring systems and foraging habitat, according to FWS records.

Ernie Marks, with the Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission, said the state supports the change.

"This is just one step in a very long journey," Marks said. "FWC supports the proposed reclassification effort as it continues through the process."

A 90-day public comment period starts Friday.. After that FWS will review the comments and likely make the final move to threatened in early 2017.

More than 6,300 manatees have been counted in Florida waters during recent aerial surveys. FWS says there are an estimated 13,000 manatees throughout their range.

Numbers have also grown in Puerto Rico and across much of the Caribbean. Manatees are found from Texas to North Carolina and in Central and South America also.

Manatee advocates concede that the population and environmental factors may have warranted a downlisting in 2007, but threats from red tide, loss of foraging grounds, sea level rise and a growing economy, some say, will continue to threaten sea cows.

A young manatee basks in the sun in the shallow waters of the Orange River. The federal government Thursday lowered its listing status from endangered to threatened.

According to the FWS Florida Manatee Recovery Plan, manatees can be downlisted if their annual survival rate is 90 percent or greater, the average annual percentage of adult females accompanied by first- or second-year calves in winter is at least 40 percent and the annual average population rate is equal to or greater than zero. Some or all of those criteria have been documented in recent years.

Manatees could be removed from the ESA list if, after downlisting, those conditions continue for another decade.

Connect with this reporter: Chad GillisNP on Twitter.

By the numbers 

West Indian manatee 

1972: Listed on the Marine Mammal Protection Act

1978: Florida designates entire state a refuge for manatees 

32: Pounds of vegetation are eaten daily by an 800-pound sea cow 

65: Age in years of oldest known manatee

12: Minutes is the longest they can remain under water

Source: U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service