The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service recently announced the completion and availability of its five-year status review of the West Indian manatee, a federally-listed species protected under the Endangered Species Act (ESA). This review includes both the Florida and Antillean subspecies of manatee.
After reviewing all of the best scientific and commercially available information and data, Service biologists concluded that the West Indian manatee no longer fits the ESA definition of endangered and made a recommendation to reclassify the West Indian manatee to threatened.
When asked whether or not the Service’s recommendation actually changes the manatee’s Federal status or level of protection, officials said no. “The five-year review is an internal staff analysis which makes a recommendation on the classification of the species,” said Dave Hankla, field supervisor for the Service’s Jacksonville, FL office. “It is not a decision document and does not change the West Indian manatee’s current Federal status as endangered, nor does it change existing Federal conservation and protection measures, such as refuges, speed restrictions or sanctuaries.”
The ESA defines “endangered” as “…in danger of extinction throughout all or a significant portion of its range…” whereas “threatened” is defined as “…is likely to become an endangered species within the foreseeable future throughout all or a significant portion of its range.”
Service managers said that the staff recommendation to change the manatee’s status was validated by new scientific data. "After reviewing all the information, we concluded a recommendation for a reclassification to threatened is clearly supported by the data,” said Hankla. Reclassifying a species requires a more formal administrative process.
“Before a classification change can occur, a separate proposed rulemaking process is required,” said Noreen Walsh, assistant regional director for the Ecological Services program in the Service’s Southeast Region office. “That formal proposal process would include ample opportunity for stakeholder and public review and comment.”
The data review and analysis for the Florida manatee included the use of a recently refined Core Biological Model (CBM) developed by the U. S. Geological Survey (USGS); a tool for assessing manatee populations.
“We are excited by the capabilities of this new scientific tool,” said Dawn Jennings, a fish and wildlife biologist in the Service’s Jacksonville office and primary co-author of the review. “It is leading edge science and provided us with a solid scientific basis upon which to draw our conclusions about the status for the Florida manatee.”
Jennings and Hankla both noted that the CBM allowed Service staff to assess the effects, both individually and cumulatively, of the various threats to the Florida manatee’s adult population over a long period of time. While both acknowledge there are still some uncertainties in the Florida manatee’s status, the good news is the manatees appear to be doing well overall.
Biologists said that the available information for the Antillean subspecies was not as extensive and that the CBM analysis was not used to assess this population, but added that the absence of this analysis does not mean that this subspecies is in immediate trouble.
“Our review of the available Antillean manatee literature and data lead us to conclude that, while the population is small, it does appear to be at least stable, maybe even growing slightly,” said Edwin Muniz, field supervisor for the Service’s Boquerón office in Puerto Rico. “While we need some additional life history data and need to update the recovery plan, I am confident that the Antillean manatee’s future can be further secured with the help of our Puerto Rican partners.”
“Based on the science it is clear that manatees are no longer facing extinction in all or a significant portion of its range,” Hankla said. “However, because of the uncertainties surrounding threats that still exist such as the loss of warm water sources and continued watercraft mortalities, it is also just as clear that the species’ appropriate classification is threatened.”
Gathering, analyzing and incorporating this information into recovery planning and implementation for both subspecies will be among the highest priorities Service biologists undertake. “Our forward momentum toward manatee recovery is enhanced as a result of the information and data provided by this five-year review,” said Jim Valade, the Service’s lead Florida manatee recovery biologist and co-author of the review. “The analysis tool provides a solid basis from which to continue our development of scientifically sound and measurable recovery criteria for both subspecies, and the review’s specific recovery recommendations will help refine our focus on key factors limiting recovery of this species.”
Service officials noted that recommending a species be reclassified from endangered to threatened is also a significant success milestone.
“This is an opportunity for all of our manatee partners to celebrate a conservation success milestone,” said Hankla. “We are proud of the contributions our partners and stakeholders have made over the past years towards the conservation, protection, and recovery of the West Indian manatee. Our recommendation to reclassify this species to threatened is, in part, a recognition of the success those efforts have had in bringing this animal back to a level that it is no longer at threat of becoming extinct in the foreseeable future.”
However, Service officials caution it is still not time to rest. “We are excited about the manatee’s future, but also know there is still a lot of work to be done,” Walsh noted. “Federal, State and local wildlife agencies, researchers, conservation interests, resources users, and the power and marine industries still have key roles to play in continuing our forward momentum toward recovery of this species. Working together with these partners we can and will secure the future of the West Indian manatee for generations to come.”
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