Manatees may move from endangered to threatened list

Story highlights

  • There may be about 4,800 manatees in Florida waters
  • They have been on the endangered species list since 1967
  • Group says changing manatees' status won't mean change in protections
  • Supporters say the sea cows are still at risk

The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service has begun a review of the status of the manatee to determine whether the lovable sea cow should be moved from the endangered to the threatened list, officials said.

The agency said Tuesday its review of the West Indian manatee, which includes the Florida manatee, will include a 60-day comment period.

The review follows a 2012 petition and a lawsuit this year from Save Crystal River Inc., an organization that wants to "improve and preserve the unique beauty of the waters of Crystal River and the community," according to its Facebook page.

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A lawyer for the Pacific Legal Foundation, a conservative/libertarian organization that represents Save Crystal River, said that changing the listing won't necessarily change the federal protections for the animal.

"But not changing that status -- when the science says it should be changed -- will undermine the credibility of environmental oversight, and that's bad news for all species and all environmental concerns," attorney Christina M. Martin said in a post on the Save Crystal River website.

An endangered species is one that is in danger of extinction now, according to the Fish and Wildlife Service. Threatened species are ones that likely will be on the verge of extinction in the future.

Manatees are slow-moving, large marine mammals and many die in collisions with boats. Boaters are required to move at idle-speed in manatee protection zones.

In 2013, federal wildlife officials broadened protections for manatees in Kings Bay, the headwaters for the Crystal River.

Patrick Rose, executive diretor of the Save the Manatee Club, told Florida Today there are still problems, including losses in the main item in a manatees' diet -- sea grass. He said habitat loss and disease are other primary threats.

Rose said his group will fight to keep manatees an endangered species.

Wildlife officials say it is unclear how many manatees are in Florida waters. A statewide survey in 2011 suggested there were about 4,800, but counting manatees, who surface every four minutes to breathe, is difficult.

The Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission said the numbers appear to be increasing in some parts of the state or are stable in others, but researchers need updated numbers.

There were 830 documented manatee deaths in 2013 and 218 for the first six months of 2014, according to information published on the commission's website.

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Many have died in algae blooms.

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Manatees have been on the federal endangered species list since it was first published in 1967.

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