Panel: Manatees not 'endangered'

Published: Sunday, January 22, 2006 at 6:01 a.m.
Last Modified: Sunday, January 22, 2006 at 12:00 a.m.
TALLAHASSEE - State biologists have recommended downgrading protections for the manatee and bald eagle, while also advising that the gopher tortoise should be upgraded to the threatened list.
The recommendations announced Friday were made by five-member scientific panels appointed by the Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission.
Under a process approved last year, they were asked to consider the current and projected size and locations of the animals. The state commission will vote on the proposals, which are separate from federal protections, in June.
The biologists said that manatees should be moved down, from "endangered" to "threatened"; that bald eagles should be taken off the protected list; and that gopher tortoises should be moved up, from a "species of special concern" to "threatened."
Elsa Haubold, lead scientist on a panel that recommended the changes, said the manatee population is still expected to drop 50 percent over the next 50 years because of habitat loss, boat collisions and red tide algae. However, she said it couldn't meet the criteria for being "endangered."
"The endangered category is for species that are on the edge of extinction . . . almost to the point of no return," she said.
The manatee recommendation is a victory for boating groups and marine developers, who have fought slow speed zones and moratoriums on dock permits designed to protect the animals.
Steven Webster, executive director of the Florida Marine Contractors Association, said the change wouldn't harm the slow-moving aquatic mammals.
"Does this mean that all of a sudden people can speed through manatee zones? No," Webster said. "Does it mean that somebody seeking to build a dock can do so without appropriate permits that consider the potential impact on manatees? No."
Webster said the manatee is still listed as endangered by the federal government, and that affects larger docks and marinas requiring permits from the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers.
However, Patti Thompson, director of science and conservation for the Save the Manatee Club, said the recommendation was "premature and wrong-headed and politically driven."
Changing gopher tortoise status could also affect development rules.
Currently, developers can pay the state for permission to bury gopher tortoises in their burrows rather than move or build around them. That could change with the state's management plan to protect its shrinking habitat.
Ray Ashton, a longtime advocate for the animal, estimates development will kill 3,000 tortoises in the coming months in Pasco, Polk and Citrus counties. Ashton said upgrading the tortoise's status to threatened will be meaningless unless the state finds ways for the animals to coexist with people. Counties should have to identify how many acres of gopher tortoise habitat are left, then commit to preserving it, he said.
Developers, facing rising land and materials costs, are likely to challenge the proposed increase in gopher tortoise protections.
"Gopher tortoise and other species protection adds to the cost of development and makes site selection tougher, as well," said Joseph Narkiewicz, executive vice president of the Tampa Bay Builders Association. "Relocating tortoises is expensive and not as easy to do as one might think."
Bald eagles are considered a success story for animal preservation laws such as the Endangered Species Act.
When first listed by the federal government in the 1960s, there were 415 nesting pairs in the lower 48 states. Now, there are more than 1,100 in Florida alone.
Even if protections were removed in Florida, federal laws could still help safeguard the bald eagle.

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