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Manatees' Status May Change

A manatee observed at Homosassa Springs, Fla., in 2003 bore scars from injuries that may have been caused by a run-in with a boat. Many environmentalists say manatees should remain classified as an endangered species.
A manatee observed at Homosassa Springs, Fla., in 2003 bore scars from injuries that may have been caused by a run-in with a boat. Many environmentalists say manatees should remain classified as an endangered species. (By Chris O'meara -- Associated Press)

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By Peter Whoriskey
Washington Post Staff Writer
Monday, April 9, 2007

MIAMI -- The Florida manatee, this state's imperiled environmental icon, in 2006 suffered its most dismal year on record.

Of a population of about 3,200, 416 died in 2006, the highest number of deaths recorded in 30 years of statistics. Many died in collisions with boat propellers.

Now, according to an internal memo, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service has been drafting plans under which the celebrated marine mammals would lose their protection as an endangered species.

The planned reclassification of the slow-moving sea cows from "endangered" to "threatened" is expected to elicit criticism from environmental groups that see it as part of the Bush administration's effort to poke holes in the Endangered Species Act.

The new designation would make it easier to loosen boating speed limits and restrictions on waterfront development that have been instituted to make Florida safer for the species, environmental leaders said.

"This is absolutely the wrong time to down-list manatees," said Patrick Rose, executive director of the Save the Manatee Club and an aquatic biologist who served as the first federal manatee coordinator. "The terrible thing is, while the last year for manatees was bad, the future could be even worse."

According to the memo sent from Fish and Wildlife to the White House, the agency was going to say that the manatee "no longer meets the definition of an endangered species."

"In Florida, manatees are exhibiting positive growth rates and high adult survival rates along the entire east coast and in the northwest region," the memo said. "There is still uncertainty about the status of manatees in the southwest region of the state."

The agency had reached those conclusions after completing a "Five-Year Review" of manatees. But an agency spokesman, while confirming that the recommendation in the memo, dated March 26, reflected the agency's thinking at the time, said it is possible it might be altered by the time the review is released this month.

"Until it gets final signatures on it, it could change," said Chuck Underwood, a spokesman with the agency's Jacksonville office. "It is an internal document. . . . Is it the way we were going at the time? Yes. Is it also possible it could change? Yes."

He declined to comment further until the review is released.

Environmental groups are already critical of the move.


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