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.
"We've entered the witching hour of the Bush administration, where there are going to be frantic lame-duck attempts to do under the table what they cannot pass through Congress," said Jeff Ruch, executive director of Public Employees for Environmental Responsibility, an environmental group, which obtained the memo.
Florida manatees and their legal protections have been the subject of a years-long battle pitting environmentalists against some Florida developers and boating groups. The animals enter other states during the summer, but nearly all winter in Florida.
By all accounts, the Florida manatee population has increased since the 1970s.
Boating speed limits, or no-wake zones, are believed to have reduced collisions. At the same time, development restrictions helped limit construction in manatee habitats.
But the species continues to face threats from increased boat traffic, red-tide outbreaks and waterfront development. The planned closure of some coastal power plants, which have become an artificial refuge because they release warm water that hundreds of manatees have come to rely on in winter months, is also considered potentially catastrophic.
Boating groups and developers have lobbied to ease some rules meant to protect the animals, arguing that the manatee population has stabilized and is big enough.
A letter from lobbyist Wade Hopping put it this way: "I would hope that instead of using the Endangered Species Act and the Marine Mammal Protection Act as devices to limit the growth of boating in Florida that we would focus on a plan that would calculate with scientific certainty how many manatees Florida waters can support and proceed to develop a system to ensure that that number of healthy manatees share the waters of the state with Florida's responsible boaters."
Developers and boating groups recorded a major victory last year, when Florida's Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission approved dropping "endangered" in favor of "threatened." All seven commissioners were appointed by then-Gov. Jeb Bush (R).
The coming dispute over the manatees will revolve around the size and stability of the current population.
A 2006 Florida Fish and Wildlife study, used by the state panel that recommended the reclassification, predicted that the population could drop about 30 percent over the next three generations.
"There are many people working in field for the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service who would agree this is not the time to down-list the species," Rose said. "My hope is that the administration will listen."