Manatees remain endangered

If you’re keeping score on Florida species, take note: Gopher tortoises are now “threatened,” and manatees are still “endangered.”

Manatees stayed on the state endangered-species list Wednesday after the Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission bowed to a request from Gov. Charlie Crist to delay a down-listing vote.

Meantime, the commission moved gopher tortoises up the Florida ladder of species designations, from its former, less-dire status as a “species of special concern.”

Audience members applauded the change for gopher tortoises, while most of the speakers on the manatee issue toed the typical stances, with environmental groups criticizing the potential manatee down-listing, and boating and marine interests urging a December vote for reclassification.

Many boaters don’t like the slow-speed zones for manatees and think the animals have rebounded enough to warrant a threatened label.

Down-listing the animal won’t eliminate the speed zones, but manatee advocates worry it would confuse the public.

“If manatees are down-listed, the boating public will erroneously think that the animal has recovered and that speed limits can be lifted,” said Jennifer Hobgood, of the Humane Society of the United States’ Tallahassee office. “It will be open season on manatees.”

The various marine interests, which support the change as a symbolic move to recognize the animal’s recovery, urged the commission to down-list the manatee at the December meeting in Key Largo.

“Put your efforts toward saving the manatee with facts and sound science,” said Gary Haugh, vice president of the boating group Citizens for Florida’s Waterways. “We’re wasting time, money and resources that could be used elsewhere.”

Bald eagle being delisted

Florida’s system of classifying species dominated the commission meeting Wednesday at the Hilton St. Petersburg Bayfront hotel in St. Petersburg, where more than 50 speakers grappled with the meaning and importance of the protective titles for the two animals. The commission also voted to continue the process of delisting the bald eagle, which is already off the federal list.

The state sets the risk of extinction for species into three categories: endangered, threatened or species of special concern. Endangered species face imminent danger of extinction, threatened ones have a very high risk, and species of special concern face a moderate risk.

Federal officials also designate species as endangered or threatened, but the federal system differs and is independent from state classifications.

Tim Breault, the commission’s habitat and species conservation-division director, said the different classifications assess the risk as high, medium and low, but that all three names reflect a concern for the species’ future. “Being on the lists is not a good place to be. It’s akin to being in the hospital.”

Wildlife officials have emphasized that changing the manatee’s status from endangered to threatened won’t lessen the protections.

They point to the state manatee-management plan, a 281-page blueprint on manatee protection that incorporates existing speed zones and details new research projects and additional protections. That plan would be approved at the same time of down-listing, which was delayed at the governor’s request.

Governor’s case for delay

Crist sent a letter Tuesday pointing out that a record-setting 417 manatees died last year, that the state needs a better system of estimating the manatee population and that three commissioners, whom he had appointed in recent months, should have extra time to absorb all the complexities behind manatee management and science.

The commission’s executive director, Ken Haddad, said he would try to get the manatee vote on the December agenda but wanted to discuss the potential change with Crist’s office first.