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article imageManatee to lose protection if endangered status is removed

By Megan Hamilton     Jul 5, 2014 in Environment
Valdosta - There is an all-too-real possibility that the manatee may be downgraded from "endangered" to "threatened, and this has wildlife conservationists concerned.
Under pressure from boating activists and Libertarians, Florida wildlife officials are reconsidering the status of the iconic West Indian manatee, or "sea cow."
On Tuesday, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service said that it would review the latest science and seek public input regarding the West Indian manatee (Trichechus manatus), even though conservationists have noted that these gentle mammals suffered a record number of deaths in Florida last year, according to Scientific American.
In 2010, 766 manatees died, with almost 400 killed by a devastating cold snap in January, and it's a record that far surpasses the old record of 429 that was set in 2009, according to the Tampa Bay Times.
Tragically the numbers are even higher for 2013, and the Times reports that 829 died — many from a Red Tide bloom or a mysterious ailment in the Indian River Lagoon. This incident may be tied to pollution. Whatever the cause, an estimated 15 percent of their population was lost.
Boating and development interests in the state have been trying since 1999 to remove the manatee from the endangered species list. The Pacific legal Foundation (PLF), a Libertarian group that is opposed to environmental regulations, has been the latest to try to budge the manatee's status, sending a petition to the agency in 2012, contending that manatees should be lowered to the category of "threatened."
While the threatened category still offers manatees some legal protection from habitat loss and other threats, it doesn't offer as much protection as the endangered status, according to The Times. The foundation also sued the agency this year because federal officials didn't act on the petition, but the inaction was due to budget shortages caused by the congressional sequestration.
"We want the government to acknowledge that it's improved," Christina Martin, an attorney for the PLF told Scientific American. "A threatened species is still protected."
The group is working on behalf of Save Crystal River, Inc., an organization advocating for boater's rights in west-central Florida. Manatee sightings are still reasonably common in this area.
In the petition, PLF argues that manatees should no longer be considered endangered because a recent aerial survey counted 4,831 of the animals in Florida's waterways, which is about 1,800 more than were counted in a 2001 aerial survey, the Times reports.
Biologists caution against relying on aerial survey numbers as if they are human census records, likening the process of counting manatees as they rise to the water's surface to counting popcorn as it pops — you can't be certain you're counting each one.
In 1967, when manatees were first included on the federal endangered species list, records show that it wasn't because of the size of their population. They were placed there because they faced serious threats from pollution, habitat loss, and speeding boats, and all of these are still threats today, the Times reports.
The petition also counters that a 2001 study that contended that there was "virtually no real probability" of manatees becoming extinct in the next century. State and federal biologists have disputed the study, largely due to the fact that a pro-boating group paid $10,000 to an environmental consultant who specialized in dock permits for developers.
In the U.S. the West Indian manatee ranges from the coast waters of the southern Atlantic Ocean from North Carolina to Florida and the Gulf Coast. It is also found in the Caribbean, Central America, and South America. During the winter it's generally only found in Florida, according to Nature Works.
During the past few years, manatee numbers in Florida and Puerto Rico have met the reclassification benchmark set in a 1997 federal wildlife recovery plan, officials acknowledged in their review, Scientific American reports. However, averages fall short of the 10,000 nesting pairs identified in the current plan.
"The population is undeniably going backwards," aquatic biologist Patrick Rose told Scientific American, noting the number of deaths in recent years, as well as the erosion of manatee habitat. Rose is also executive director for the Save the Manatee Club.
"This is a really bad time because there is too much uncertainty, too much at risk, going forward," he said.
Manatees may maintain a large range, but today they only exist in a few small, isolated populations, Bagheera reports. Once widespread along rivers and coasts, they were hunted extensively in the 18th and 19th centuries. Coastal development has also reduced their populations.
Manatees are definitely large and bulky aquatic mammals with flippers for forelimbs and a tail that looks rather like a large spatula. They can reach 12 feet in length and weigh as much as 3,500 pounds. They may live for as long as 50 years. Manatees have a uniquely divided upper lip, that is flexible enough to snaffle up aquatic plants. Their diets consist entirely of vegetation, of which they eat about 100 pounds per day, Bagheera reports. Like all other marine mammals, they are air-breathing.
Females become sexually mature between the ages of five and nine years old, but manatees do not produce many offspring during their lifetime. More animals are killed each year than are born. Mothers bond closely with their calves, but other social ties among manatees are much more loose-knit. These huge creatures, which are vaguely blob-like in their appearance — except for their bulbous, whiskery faces — are extremely gentle, and Bagheera reports that they have been described as incapable of aggression.
Manatees are in the order Sirenia, which also includes the West African manatee, the Amazonian manatee, and the dugong. The Steller's sea cow, another sirenian, became extinct in the 1700's, Bagheera reports. It's believed that the sirenians evolved from an ancestor that they share with the elephant, their closest living land relative.
Also like the elephant, they are under threat of extinction, and if groups like the PLF prevail, it's likely that the manatee's problems will only worsen.
The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service is inviting public input on the idea before it makes a decision, but this must be done by Sept. 2, the Times reports.
More about Manatee, West Indian manatee, Scientific American, pacific legal foundation, save crystal river inc
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