Washington, DC — The Florida manatee will lose its protections as a federal endangered species under a new plan being prepared by the Bush administration, according to an internal document released today by the Save the Manatee Club and Public Employees for Environmental Responsibility (PEER).
According to a March 26, 2007 briefing paper from the U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service (FWS) labeled “White House Report,” the FWS is preparing a recommendation to downgrade or “down-list” the manatee from its present “endangered” status to “threatened” under the Federal Endangered Species Act. This change will reduce protections against the “taking” of manatees and facilitate construction of more marinas and other development in critical coastal habitat areas.
“A federal reclassification at this time could undermine our chances of securing the manatee’s future in the face of exploding human population growth and shrinking aquatic habitat in Florida,” stated Patrick Rose, an aquatic biologist who is Save the Manatee Club’s executive director. “With the price of coastal land skyrocketing, regulations protecting manatees are seen as standing in the way of even more extensive development of Florida’s coastline.”
Todd Willens, a newly appointed Deputy Assistant Secretary of Interior for Fish and Wildlife and Parks, is shepherding the 5-year status review and listing downgrade for the manatee. Prior to his appointment, Willens was policy director for former U.S. Representative Richard Pombo, who unsuccessfully sought legislative changes to weaken the Endangered Species Act and was defeated in the 2006 election.
“As we enter the lame duck stretch of the Bush administration, there will be more of these efforts to circumvent Congress by using the administrative process to undermine the laws they cannot repeal,” added PEER Executive Director Jeff Ruch, pointing to recently exposed Bush administration plans to weaken the Endangered Species Act by a series of regulations. “This is another case of the scientists being run over by the combined political weight of the Florida homebuilder, marina and recreational boating lobbies.”
The 417 manatee deaths recorded in 2006 was an all-time high fatality total, following a near-record fatality year in 2005. Conservationists are concerned that the federal reclassification will aggravate the principal threats to manatee survival at a very unstable period, including:
- Boating Deaths. The legal basis for boat speed restrictions, already unevenly enforced, will be weakened by the new Bush plan. Speedboat collisions and propeller maiming are already the major cause for manatee deaths;
- Water Pollution, Algal Blooms and Red Tides. A new ongoing outbreak of red tide may have already claimed the lives of scores of manatees in Southwest Florida where researchers agree the sub-population is declining. This new threat source will be aggravated by human population growth; and
- Habitat Loss through Development. The destruction of the manatee’s aquatic habitat to make way for new coastal development is even now proceeding at break-neck speed.
In addition, the manatee population could experience large die-offs as aging power plants go off-line. Power plant outfalls that serve as warm water refuges would no longer be available, leading to the possible loss of hundreds of wintering manatees to cold stress syndrome. Moreover, many of the Florida springs that manatees depend upon are declining in flow. Removal of the manatee’s endangered status would likely undermine efforts to find alternative warm water sources.
Despite all of these looming threats, which the Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission (FWC) has determined could result in the loss of 50% of the manatee population in the next 45 years, FWC is also poised to downgrade the protected status of the manatee under state law. If the federal government follows suit, many feel that the remaining safety net for the manatee will have been severed.
“This reclassification comes at the worst possible time for the manatee when record numbers are dying and threats to their long-term survival are increasing,” Rose concluded. “This move to down list manatees is politically driven, is not legally defensible, and is certainly not motivated by concern for the survival of the manatee.”