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Manatee advocates concede that the population and environmental factors may have warranted a downlisting in 2007, but threats from red tide, loss of foraging grounds, sea level rise and a growing economy, some say, will continue to threaten sea cows.

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(News-Press.com) - The manatee is at the center of a struggle between private-property rights groups and animal advocates after the federal government agreed last week to review the listing status of Southwest Florida's signature sea creature.

The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service's announcement came two months after Pacific Legal Foundation filed a suit against the agency for failing to act on a 2012 petition, in which PLF — representing nonprofit group Save the Crystal River, Inc. — asked FWS to consider downlisting the manatee from endangered to threatened. Save the Crystal River enlisted the help of PLF after manatee boating zones were proposed for Kings Bay, which would have increased driving time for boaters living in the Crystal River area.

"Their own scientists said in 2007 that it should be downlisted, and the population has continued to grow," said Christina Martin, a Palm Beach Gardens attorney for PLF. "(But) the Fish and Wildlife Service is reluctant to downlist or de-list a species."

Manatee advocates concede that the population and environmental factors may have warranted a downlisting in 2007, but threats from red tide, loss of foraging grounds, sea level rise and a growing economy, some say, will continue to threaten sea cows.

"Just agreeing to do the 12-month determination is not an indication if they (FWS) concur or not it's just that the petition warranted consideration," said Pat Rose, withSave the Manatee Club. "I don't know of anything that is telling us that things are getting better, either for manatees or the entire aquatic system."

Reclassification could take years as biological reviews, population studies and public input meetings are required when considering the status of a listed species. Downlisting manatees would not have immediate impacts on state or federal protections in Florida as manatees would still be listed as threatened and would be protected by the Marine Mammal Protection Act, as well as state slow-speed boat zones.

Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission officials said they're not sure how any change in federal listing status might affect manatee zone speed limits.

Unlike land animals like panthers — which must have three separate populations of 240 or more to be removed from the ESA list — manatee recovery is based on eliminating or controlling threats, mostly watercraft deaths. Protections must also be in place for warm-water refuge sites, freshwater spring systems and foraging habitat, according to FWS records.

According to the FWS Florida Manatee Recovery Plan, manatees could only be downlisted if their annual survival rate is 90 percent or greater, the average annual percentage of adult females accompanied by first- or second-year calves in winter is at least 40 percent and the annual average population rate is equal to or greater than zero. Manatees could be removed from the ESA if, after downlisting, those conditions continue for another decade.

Some or all of those criteria have been documented in recent years.

"The hope is one day it will recover to the point that we can take it off the endangered species list," Martin said. "But now all we want is the federal government to follow their own rules and listen to their own scientists."

Rose said risks that threaten the manatee population — poor water quality, loss of sea grass and other food sources and increased boating activity — will continue to be a problem in Florida.

"One that is temporarily down is watercraft, but I think we'll see those rise (as) Florida continues to recover from the recession," Rose said. "It's never gone away, but I would predict, and I hope I'm wrong, we're probably going to break watercraft records in the future."

Jim Griffiths, a local boater and publisher of boating magazine Nautical Mile, said he thinks the manatee population, locally, is doing well but that protections should not be removed without public comment and updated numbers on manatee numbers and mortality trends.

"There's been a drastic change in our environment," Griffiths said. "A lot of boating disappeared (in Lee County since the 2007 recommendation) and now we're getting more people on the water and boating is getting popular again."

Rose said the Save the Manatee Club has already started submitting comment to FWS.

"The very things that got them into this place is what people want to tear down," he said.

FWS is taking public comment on the review until Sept. 2, when both a one-year review of the listing status and a five-year review of the manatee population. will start.

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By the numbers

10 million estimated cost, in dollars, to recover manatee population

1893 Year Florida banned killing manatees

59 Maximum age recorded

3,500 Pounds in weight for extremely large males

4,082 Deaths documented between 1976 and 2000

— Sources: U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission

Public Comment

To submit public comment: Electronically, go to the Federal eRulemaking Portal: regulations.gov. In the Keyword box, enter docket number FWS-R4-ES-2014-0024. Then, in the Search panel on the left side under the "Document Type" heading, click on the "Proposed Rules" link to locate this document. You may submit a comment by clicking on "Send a Comment or Submission." U.S. mail or hand delivery: Public Comments Processing, Attn: Docket No. FWS-R4-ES-2014-0024, U.S. Fish and Wildlife Headquarters, MS: BPHC, 5275 Leesburg Pike, Falls Church, Va. 22041-3803.

Definitions

Endangered

Any species that is in danger of extinction throughout all or a significant portion of its range.

Threatened

Species that are likely to become endangered in the future.

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