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Environmental groups reach agreement with feds to help save Florida manatees

A record 1,101 manatees died statewide in 2021 largely because of starvation.

ST. PETERSBURG, Fla. — Three conservation groups announced they reached an agreement with the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service to have the federal agency revise the critical habitat status for the Florida manatee by September 2024.

The Center for Biological Diversity, Defenders of Wildlife and Save the Manatee Club have urged officials to protect manatee habitats amid the significant die-offs in recent years. A record 1,101 manatees died statewide in 2021 largely because of the lack of food sources caused by pollution in the Indian River Lagoon, according to the Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission (FWC).

Another 562 manatees have died so far in 2022 through May 27, FWC data shows.

The legal agreement states that on or before Sept. 12, 2024, the Fish and Wildlife Service shall submit a proposed revision of critical habitat for the Florida manatee. This "essential step" helps to better protect species where they live, the groups say, adding that manatees were given critical habitat status in 1976 — the designation hasn't been modified since despite changes in their environment.

Animals in federally protected critical habitats are more than twice as likely to recover than species without it, according to a statement. Federal agencies that fund or permit projects in areas of critical habitat would need to consult with the Fish and Wildlife Service to ensure the habitat isn't damaged or destroyed.

"Safeguarding the places where manatees live will help put these incredibly imperiled animals back on a path toward recovery," Ragan Whitlock, a Florida-based attorney at the Center for Biological Diversity, said in a statement. "Protecting the habitat of these magnificent creatures is long overdue, but we’re happy these safeguards will soon be in place."

Wildlife officials in April ended a months-long feeding program in the Indian River Lagoon by which thousands of pounds of lettuce were tossed into the water to help save the starving animals. While deemed a success after the animals left the warming water of the lagoon, FWC said it would continue to monitor the area.

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