Environmental groups could sue the feds for delays in determining if manatees are reclassified as endangered

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Manatees, Crystal River, Florida. By Seán Kinane (Jan. 2008).

By Jim Saunders ©2024 The News Service of Florida

TALLAHASSEE — Supporters of bolstering protections for manatees notified the federal government Thursday that they are preparing to file a lawsuit over delays in determining whether manatees should be classified as an endangered species.

The notice stems from a petition that four organizations and an individual filed in November 2022 asking the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service to reclassify manatees from a threatened species to an endangered species.

The Center for Biological Diversity, the Harvard Animal Law & Policy Clinic, Miami Waterkeeper, the Save the Manatee Club and Frank S. González García said in Thursday’s filing that federal officials did not comply with a requirement to provide findings within 12 months of the petition about whether reclassification was warranted.

“The West Indian manatee is in danger of extinction, and the (Fish and Wildlife) Service’s continued delay in issuing its 12-month finding harms the manatee’s prospects for survival and recovery,” the notice said. “Petitioners are eager to address this violation and to discuss with the service prospects for resolution ahead of litigation. If the service does not act promptly to correct its failure to timely issue the 12-month finding, petitioners will pursue litigation against the agency.”

The petition was filed after Florida had a record 1,100 manatee deaths in 2021, according to Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission data. The state had 800 manatee deaths in 2022, followed by 518 in 2023. As of March 15, 154 manatees had died this year.

At least part of the spike in deaths in 2021 and 2022 was related to a lack of seagrass in areas such as the Indian River Lagoon, causing manatees to starve. That led state and federal wildlife officials to take a highly unusual step of feeding lettuce to manatees that congregated in warm water near a Florida Power & Light power plant in Brevard County.

The notice filed Thursday said algae blooms in the Indian River Lagoon have led to loss of seagrass, a primary food source for manatees. But it also pointed to other factors threatening manatees, including boat strikes and the potential future closure of power plants whose outfalls provide warm water that offers winter refuges to manatees.

“These growing, unmitigated threats demonstrate that existing regulatory mechanisms are inadequate to safeguard the species’ continued existence, highlighting the urgent need for the (Fish and Wildlife) Service to respond to the petition and grant the West Indian manatee the appropriate classification by listing them as an ‘endangered species,’” the notice said.

The petition seeks to effectively reverse a 2017 decision that reclassified manatees from endangered to threatened.

While federal officials have not issued the “12-month finding,” they issued another document in October that indicated the Fish and Wildlife Service would conduct a review and that shifting manatees from a threatened species to an endangered species “may be warranted.”

“We find the petition presents substantial information that seagrass loss may be a threat to the species such that it may meet the definition of an endangered species under the (Endangered Species) Act,” the document said. “Therefore, we find that the petition presents substantial information that the petitioned action, reclassifying the West Indian manatee as endangered, may be warranted and we will commence a status review to determine if the action is warranted.”

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