Summary of State Manatee Downlisting Issue:

  • Florida has its own Endangered and Threatened Species Act (FESA). This is totally separate from the federal Endangered Species Act (ESA). The FESA classifies imperiled species as endangered, threatened, or species of special concern.

  • Manatees are currently listed as endangered under both the state and the federal acts.

  • In 1999, the state adopted new rule language under the FESA regarding how to classify Florida’s imperiled species. The new rule language was based on the World Conservation Union’s (IUCN) criteria for listing species on a global scale.

  • At that time, manatees were still under the jurisdiction of the Florida Department of Environmental Protection (DEP), although shortly after, the Florida Fish & Wildlife Conservation Commission (FWCC) was created and inherited manatee management from the DEP.

  • Unfortunately, the FWCC adopted IUCN’s definitions for the 3 categories of imperilment but not the terms (names) of the definitions. Consequently, IUCN’s “endangered” now becomes FWCC’s “threatened.” (Using the state’s definition of “endangered,” a species would have to be projected to lose 80% of its population within three generations!) This misalignment of terms and definitions is why manatees are being recommended for downlisting.

  • In August, 2001, the Coastal Conservation Association petitioned the FWCC to review the biological status of manatees under the new FESA listing/delisting rule criteria.

  • The FESA’s new rule criteria for listed imperiled species is so stringent that, using these criteria, manatees will be downlisted by the FWCC, regardless of their true biological status in the wild.

  • In 2003, because of mounting opposition from numerous groups, the FWCC reconvened a Listing Process Stakeholders Panel to review the controversial rule criteria. In order to make substantive changes to the rule criteria, the FWCC insisted that the Panel reach full consensus. The panel included representatives from user groups and, consequently, no full consensus could be reached on what changes should be made to make these criteria more adaptive to individual species’ very different life histories. (Some agreement was reached on other changes that make the state’s rule criteria more similar to the IUCN criteria, but the major flaw was not corrected and the Florida categories of imperilment remain mismatched with the IUCN categories.)

  • After the Panel failed to reach consensus, FWCC staff then recommended that the FWCC go forward to adopt the proposed rule criteria amendments. Under the proposed amendments, only the mismatched World Conservation Union’s (IUCN) listing/delisting criteria can be used to determine species’ listing classifications (endangered, threatened, species of special concern).

  • Many species besides the manatee could be downlisted or even delisted using FWCC’s flawed criteria, including: Florida panthers, all sea turtle species, black bears, and right whales. FWCC’s staff – in a quick review - looked at some state-listed species and found that:

    • The Florida panther with an estimated 80 adults remaining in the wild could move from endangered to threatened.
    • The Florida black bear could be delisted altogether.
    • The red cockaded woodpecker has already been downlisted, even though the majority of RCW experts recommended against downlisting, and even though they are still listed as endangered on the federal level.
    • According to the federal Marine Mammal Commission, even the Northern right whale (population about 350 animals) would likely move down a category from endangered to threatened.

  • On April 14th, the FWCC is sure to adopt these rule criteria amendments. Then they will once again move forward with the manatees’ biological assessment, which has been on hold. Manatees will be downlisted at least one category to threatened or even lower using their rule criteria.

  • It is important to note that the original rule criteria are flawed and the proposed amendments to the rule criteria do not make the very necessary and substantive changes.

The reasons why manatees should not be downlisted now are:

  • Human-related mortality is still unacceptably high.

  • Habitat destruction is still continuing unabated. In fact, there are numerous bills proposed in the Florida legislature that weaken habitat protection for not only the manatee, but for many other native species by weakening growth management laws and the environmental permit review process for new development.

  • Researchers feel that out of the 4 sub-populations of manatees, one sub-population (Southwest Florida) is probably already declining. The East Coast sub-population is too close to call – they may be stable or slightly declining or slightly increasing. These 2 sub-populations make up about 84% of the entire manatee population. The other 2 sub-populations (Crystal River and Blue Spring) are increasing, but this is mostly because these 2 areas have been protected for decades – and these 2 populations make up only about 16% of the entire population.

We want the FWCC to go back to the drawing board and adopt a rule that:

  • Adequately addresses the needs of individual species’ based on the unique life histories of each species. (The federal ESA listing/delisting process uses this approach.)

  • Bases the biological status of any species on species-specific benchmarks, including:
    • Comprehensive habitat protection
    • Significant reductions in human-related mortality

    • Stable or increasing survival rates for all age classes
    • Stable or increasing reproductive rates

At the very least, we want the FWCC:

  • Not to change the status of a species when that species is listed as endangered on the federal level under the federal ESA.

  • Establish an aquatic species caveat (exemption) for aquatic species (sea turtles, manatees, right whales) that have management plans, i.e., the manatee has a federal Manatee Recovery Plan. The FWCC has already created a marine species caveat to exempt fish species that have management plans. (This is so that fish with depleted stocks can still be fished.)

  • If all else fails, the FWCC should align the definitions for endangered, threatened, and species of special concern with their terms (names). Under this scenario, manatees could remain classified as endangered on the state level.

In Summary:

If FWCC uses the rule criteria (including proposed amendments) to assess the biological status of Florida’s listed imperiled species, many species will be downlisted or delisted before they are actually fully recovered. Protective regulations could be rolled back and the public will erroneously think that species are doing better than they actually are.

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