The West Indian manatee, Florida’s beloved sea cow, could be downlisted from endangered to threatened status status under the Endangered Species Act, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service announced Thursday.
Population growth, improved habitat conditions and a decline in direct threats to the gentle creature have prompted the change in status.
Federal law defines an endangered species as one facing possible extinction throughout all or a significant portion of its range, while a threatened species is likely to become endangered in the foreseeable future.
“The manatee is one of the most charismatic and instantly recognizable species,” said Michael Bean, Principal Deputy Assistant Secretary for Fish and Wildlife and Parks at the Department of the Interior. “It’s hard to imagine the waters of Florida without them, but that was the reality we were facing before manatees were listed under the Endangered Species Act. While there is still more work to be done to fully recover manatee populations, their numbers are climbing and the threats to the species’ survival are being reduced.
If implemented, the change in status won’t affect federal protections the manatee is afforded under the endangered species act. Public comments on the proposal will be taken until April 7, 2016.
Florida Rep. Vern Buchanan, R-Sarasota, sent a letter to the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service saying the decision would be “misguided and premature.”
Buchanan said the government needed to continue to protect the species, citing experts that have projected that the current population of manatees could drop below 500 in the next century.
“I urge the agency to withdraw its misguided and premature proposal immediately and help save this treasured species,” Buchanan said. “The government must not downplay the severity of these threats to the manatee’s survival.”
Kate Irby of the Bradenton Herald contributed from Bradenton, Fla.