What do manatees and bureaucracy have in common? They both have a tendency to move slowly—sometimes painfully slowly. In Florida manatees' own lethargy puts the animals at risk of being killed or injured by the speedboats that zip through the state's waterways. Sluggish bureaucracy, meanwhile, has created an opportunity for groups who oppose the manatees' protected status to file a lawsuit to remove the "sea cows" from the endangered species list.
Let's back up a bit. Florida's manatees—a subspecies of the West Indian manatee (Trichechus manatus)—have been protected in the U.S. since 1967, six years before the Endangered Species Act of 1973. Although no clear records of their historic populations existed, the threats to manatees at the time were obvious. They routinely died from boat strikes and were losing their warm water habitat to coastal development, which pushed them farther north into colder waters. Manatees cannot withstand temperatures below 20 degrees Celsius; today, many of the animals in the northern areas die of hypothermia.
Conservation efforts over the past few decades, including laws that restrict boating speeds in manatee habitat, have done a remarkable job of improving manatee populations. In fact, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service (FWS) noted in 2007 that manatees had a much smaller risk of extinction than in 1967 and suggested that the species be downlisted from "endangered" to "threatened."
No action was taken. In 2012 a local property-rights group called Save Crystal River seized on the 2007 suggestion and, with the help of the libertarian Pacific Legal Foundation (PLF), petitioned the federal government to complete the suggested downlisting. FWS, which has continued to monitor and study manatee populations, never responded to that petition. Two years later the foundation sued to force FWS to move forward.
And so, last week FWS did just that: the agency announced (pdf) that it will consider downlisting manatees to threatened status, which would remove some of their protections. As with all such FWS decisions, this action is just the beginning. The government will now spend the next two months soliciting public comment on whether the change should be made or if manatees should still be listed as an endangered species. It will likely take another 12 months to announce their decision after the public comment period closes.
But here's the thing about this slow, slow process: the years since 2007 have mostly been unkind to manatees and the suggested downlisting no longer appears to be advisable. In 2010 a record high of 766 manatees died, according to the Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission, which has been tracking manatee mortalities since 1974. The death totals dropped in 2011 and 2012 but 2013 was positively awful. A new record mortality rate was established last year when 829 manatees died, many of them from an unusually large red tide algae bloom. All told, more than 15 percent of Florida's manatees perished in 2013.
For manatees to lose their endangered species protected status, FWS biologists would need to show that not only have populations increased (which they apparently have in the past decade) but also that the threats faced by the animals have decreased. Yet, ironically, now that the FWS is beginning to move, the case for a downlisting is harder to make. Even the PLF seems to acknowledge that the recent high mortality rates throw a monkey wrench into their petition, based as it is on old information. As foundation attorney Christina Martin told Craig Pittman, a writer at the Tampa Bay Times, "If things have changed [since 2007], then so be it."
By the way, this year is off to a slightly better start for manatees. Only 218 died between January 1 and June 27, compared with 668 during the first six months of 2013. The majority of this year's deaths to date were caused by watercraft; many others were infant manatees that did not survive long after birth. The threats to these lumbering beasts obviously remain and don't seem to be going anywhere soon, lawsuits or not.
Photo: A manatee in the Crystal River National Wildlife Refuge. By Tracy Colson, USFWS