ORLANDO, Fla.—The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service will consider tightening protections on the West Indian manatee after concluding that a petition demanding that the animal’s endangered status be restored presented substantial scientific evidence, the agency said Wednesday.
The agency said it would conduct an in-depth status review and analysis and issue a 12-month finding on whether the reclassification is warranted. If so, the agency said it would publish a proposed rule and invite public comment. Nearly 2,000 manatees died in Florida in 2021 and 2022—a two-year record. Conservation groups said the mortalities represented more than 20 percent of the state’s population.
A similar analysis and finding, the Fish Wildlife Service said, would also be conducted based on a separate petition requesting that manatees in Puerto Rico be protected as a distinct endangered population. The manatee was one of the first species listed under the 1967 precursor to the Endangered Species Act. The animal was downlisted in 2017 from endangered to threatened, an action that generated widespread outcry.
“The best scientific information was available to the Fish and Wildlife Service when they went through the process of downlisting manatees, and we believe it was unjustified from a biological standpoint and that the risks and threats were actually increasing,” said Pat Rose, executive director of the Save the Manatee Club, one of the groups involved in the petition aimed at restoring the endangered status. “Our warnings sadly unfortunately came true in a huge way.”
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The unprecedented number of manatee deaths in Florida in 2021 and 2022 triggered multiple lawsuits over water pollution and lost habitat. The mortalities also prompted a congressional measure, filed by Reps. Vern Buchanan (R-Fla.) and Darren Soto (D-Fla.), calling for the animal’s endangered status to be restored.
The Fish and Wildlife Service and Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission went as far as to provide supplemental lettuce for starving manatees in the Indian River Lagoon, a crucial manatee habitat on Florida’s east coast where ongoing water quality problems have led to a widespread loss of seagrass, the animal’s favored food. Aquariums, zoos and other rehabilitation facilities rushed to rescue and take in ailing manatees.
When the Fish and Wildlife Service announced in 2017 that it would downlist the manatee, the agency said it was making the move because gains in the animal’s population and habitat meant its status no longer fit the definition of endangered. Under the Endangered Species Act, an endangered animal is at risk of extinction throughout all or most of its range. A threatened one is likely to become endangered in the near future. The agency said the animal’s protections would not change and that the work to safeguard the population would continue unaltered.
The downlisting was opposed by all four scientific experts who peer-reviewed the proposal, a vast majority of the 3,799 organizations and individuals who submitted public comments (including petitions signed by 75,276 individuals) and the Miccosukee Tribe. The Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission supported the downlisting.
The peer reviewers and Miccosukee Tribe cited various concerns including harmful algae blooms and seagrass losses in the Indian River Lagoon. The experts also pointed out there was no discussion in the proposal of climate change or how factors like sea-level rise, hurricanes and warmer waters—where harmful algae blooms flourish—might affect manatee habitat.
Although the Fish and Wildlife Service said the manatee’s protections would not change, the downlisting sent an important message, said Ragan Whitlock, staff attorney at the Center for Biological Diversity, another group involved in the petition to restore the endangered status.
“It was a signal to the public, to our lawmakers and to the agency that our recovery efforts were sufficient,” he said.
The petition to restore the endangered status was filed by the Save the Manatee Club, Center for Biological Diversity, Harvard Animal Law & Policy Clinic, Miami Waterkeeper and Frank S. González García, a concerned citizen. The Fish and Wildlife Service said the petition presented substantial information that the seagrass losses may represent a threat to the species. The agency also said that during its 12-month review it would evaluate relevant threats and conservation actions based on the best scientific data.
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The development comes as things may be looking up for Florida’s manatees. The number of deaths this year is down somewhat, at 476. Some of the seagrass in the Indian River Lagoon is rebounding, although it far from resembling the vast meadows of a decade ago. Still, Rose is hopeful the lettuce feedings will not be necessary this winter for the cold-sensitive animals.
“If you compare it to the horrible last couple of years before, they are doing better,” he said.
Manatees still face many threats. Explosive population growth in Florida is pressuring their habitat, and in time, climate change will prompt power companies to move away from fossil fuels, threatening the artificially warm waters around power plants where manatees gather during the winter. Rose said some 60 percent of the population is dependent on these warm waters.
“We could find ourselves right back here again if the harmful algae blooms were to kick up,” he said. “Really the work to ensure that does not happen has not been done.”