Thousands plead to keep beloved manatee on 'endangered' list
On the final day for public comment on whether to downgrade the West Indian Manatee from "endangered" to "threatened," the unofficial consensus was overwhelmingly clear.
Over the last three months, virtually all of the 3,700-plus people who've weighed in on the matter with the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service want the big sea cow to retain its current federal classification.
"The manatees' future is far from certain, which means the work is far from over, and the time for downlisting is NOT yet here," Colleen McGlone, of New Port Richey, Fla., wrote in a March 21 comment posted on the wildlife service's website.
In a Web comment posted Thursday, Mabel P. de la Vega of Miami Beach, Fla., said the threats to manatees would grow as Florida's population grew. "Our precious manatees are in danger," she wrote. "Please don't remove them from endangered species, please protect them!!!!"
Angela Marquez from Westchester, Ill., told of seeing a manatee for the first time several years ago at Blue Spring State Park in Orange City, Fla.
"I was spellbound," Marquez posted Thursday. "An infant came close to the shoreline and I was instantly in love. What amazing creatures. Why would you want to put them at further risk? The West Indian Manatee deserves your protection from the constant threat boaters pose to them. ... Please keep them safe for future generations to fall in love with."
Population growth, improved habitat conditions and fewer direct threats to the manatee prompted the move to reclassify the sea mammal under the Endangered Species Act.
But lawmakers and manatee supporters say the formula that led to the sea cows' improved numbers, after years of decline, should not be tampered with. They fear the reclassification could set the stage for further changes that might weaken the manatees' current protections.
In a letter to Fish and Wildlife Director Dan Ashe, Florida Sen. Bill Nelson said, "It took decades of public education, recovery actions and conservation practices to bring the manatee population in Florida to its current level of about 6,300." Nelson said he didn't believe that science supported the reclassification.
"Manatees have been listed as endangered since 1967 due to threats from pollution, habitat loss and speeding boats. All of these hazards remain today, and there is no indication that such threats will decrease in the future," wrote Nelson, who's a Democrat. "Instead, manatees will likely face new or more severe threats from climate change, seagrass loss and habitat destruction. In particular, poor water quality poses an immediate risk to manatees in Florida today."
The Maitland, Fla.-based Save the Manatee Club delivered a 300-plus page petition to the wildlife service Wednesday with nearly 11,400 signatures from people opposing the "premature downlisting." More than 7,400 of the U.S. signatories were from outside Florida, and 955 were international supporters.
Because the final decision is based only "on the best available scientific and commercial data," public comments offering support or opposition to the proposal without any supporting information aren't considered in the final decision, according to the petition filed by Anne Harvey Holbrook, the manatee club staff attorney.
"However, we would submit that, in the case of downlisting an especially treasured and iconic species whose recovery has involved and will continue to require substantial public participation and support, that such overwhelming public opposition to downlisting should carry some weight," Holbrook wrote.
Manatee supporters far and wide are counting on the same thing.
"PLEASE, DO NOT RECLASSIFY THE MANATEES!!!!!!!! These are awesome animals that still need to be protected!!!!!!!! We need them to be here for future generations!!!!!!!" read a Jan. 14 post from Tina Parker of Wasilla, Alaska.
Virginia Bennett of Honolulu felt the same way.
"Manatees are such UNIQUE animals!" she wrote in a Feb. 12 post. "It is beyond my comprehension that Florida would hesitate to provide the utmost protection and support for such a unique creature!!"
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