Manatees Could Lose 'Endangered' Status

The Associated Press
Monday, April 9, 2007; 8:06 PM

MIAMI -- The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service on Monday recommended upgrading the manatee's status from endangered to threatened, a move that indicates the animal has rebounded from the brink of extinction.

The Fish and Wildlife service on Monday released its five-year review of manatee populations in Florida and Puerto Rico and found that the species no longer fits the criteria to be deemed endangered.

Federal endangered status means an animal is at immediate risk of extinction. Threatened status means a species could become endangered in the future if protections are not maintained.

However, species reclassifications from endangered to threatened are largely ceremonial since the same state and federal protections remain.

"If there isn't any other message in this report, it's that recovery is attainable," said Dave Hankla, field supervisor for the Fish and Wildlife Service's Jacksonville office. "We just believe it fits the definition of threatened better than it fits the definition of endangered."

The agency will accept public comments before the manatee's classification is formally changed, Hankla said.

Officials are still concerned about diminishing warm water habitats for the manatee and threats from collisions with watercraft, but scientists were encouraged by the apparent population increase in Florida.

This year's annual manatee census recorded 2,812 of the animals, also known as sea cows, in Florida water. In 1991 _ the survey's first year _ 1,267 manatees were counted in the state.

Some opponents to the status change weren't convinced that protections will remain the same.

Patrick Rose, executive director of the Save the Manatee Club, said a classification switch could mean changes in boating and development restrictions that were established to protect manatees.

"This is not the time to be moving to say that they're going to be downlisting (the manatees) and then dilute the protection for them," Rose said.

The Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission voted last year to change the manatee's status from endangered to threatened.

© 2007 The Associated Press