Monday, June 05, 2006

Florida Fish and Wildlife Commission Will Decide Whether to Move Forward On Easing the Manatee's Status from Endangered To Threatened

Pay Back to Friends in Business.

Not good, not good at all. Especially since the commission was appointed by Jeb Bush. And, as the article states below, this is not a change that is due to science, but instead “…a change long sought by boaters and waterfront developers.” I can see where this is going.


State agency to consider whether to move manatees off endangered list

By David Fleshler
South Florida Sun-Sentinel
Posted June 5 2006

The state wildlife commission will decide this week whether to revise the legal status of gopher tortoises and manatees, two species that have suffered over the past few decades as people crowded into Florida.

The Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission will vote Wednesday whether to proceed with a proposal to increase the gopher tortoise's status to threatened, which could begin to limit the state's practice of allowing developers to bury thousands of the animals alive. The commission, a board appointed by Gov. Jeb Bush, will also decide whether to move forward on easing the manatee's status from endangered to threatened, a change long sought by boaters and waterfront developers.

Neither change will lead to immediate action. But the meeting, at the West Palm Beach Marriott, is expected to be contentious. Manatee advocates plan to attend to argue against the move, which they say will lead to less protection for the mammals. And animal-rights activists plan to be there to call for an end to the killing of tortoises.

For years the wildlife commission has issued permits allowing developers to crush or bury tortoises alive, provided they paid into a fund to buy and protect gopher tortoise habitat elsewhere in the state. But the commission's biologists say this system hasn't prevented the tortoise's decline, and they petitioned the commission to revise the tortoise's status to threatened. Since the European settlement of Florida, the gopher tortoise has lost about 69 percent of its habitat, according to a report by a state biological review panel, which recommended upgrading the tortoise's legal status.

The commission has received many letters from people horrified at news accounts of the live burial of tortoises, which have slow metabolism that allows them to survive for months before dying of thirst or starvation.

"To take a living animal and bury it, and allow it to die a slow, painful death is beyond cruel," said Steven Rosen, a Davie animal-rights activist who has filed suit to try to stop the practice. "How do they sleep at night?"

The vote Wednesday will have no immediate impact on the tortoise. But it would allow a team of biologists and state officials to prepare a management plan to help the species recover. State officials say the plan, expected to be completed in April, will propose ways to reduce the number of tortoises killed in construction projects, such as moving them to vacant habitat in the Panhandle and elsewhere. But they say there's a limit to how much the wildlife commission can do to stop tortoise killing, while respecting property rights.

"Nobody's happy that gopher tortoises are getting buried by bulldozers," said Henry Cabbage, spokesman for the wildlife commission. "But the agency's authority is not so broad that we can prohibit developers from developing land. It's an unpleasant reality gopher tortoises are getting buried, and that's something we care about. But the solution to this is very elusive. I really don't see what we could accomplish by becoming a nuisance to developers."

In a response to the state's biological review, Steve Godley, a biological consultant and representative of the Florida Home Builders Association, called the models in the biological report "poorly documented with many unstated assumptions" that didn't support the reclassification. But he wrote that the decline of tortoises could be virtually eliminated by improving the management of public lands and requiring that developers move tortoises to public and private lands.

The proposal to reclassify the manatee came in response to a petition from the Coastal Conservation Association of Florida, a recreational fishing group whose members were tired of having to endure a series of slow-speed zones to reach fishing spots. The proposal has the support of the boating and marine construction industries, which are struggling with manatee-inspired restrictions on the construction of slips, docks and other boating facilities.

The state's biological analysis supports the move, saying the species faces a low probability of extinction over the next 100 years. Since the 1970s, the report said, the manatee's population has steadily increased. But even though the report recommends removing the species' endangered tag, it recommends listing the manatee as a "threatened" species. The report says the manatee faces a 12 percent chance of declining by half over the next three generations and a 55 percent chance of losing one-fifth of its population over the next two generations.

The report said the largest known human source of manatee mortality is collisions with watercraft. Last year, ships and boats killed 80 manatees in Florida, up from 69 the year before.

Ted Forsgren, executive director of Coastal Conservation Authority, said he has no problem with legitimate speed zones that protect manatees. But he said many are unnecessary, particularly in light of the species' improved prospects. Reclassifying the manatee from endangered to threatened will lead to "a more objective examination of some of these different speed zones," he said.

"We're saltwater anglers, and we want to be able to have reasonable access to get into good fishing spots."

But environmentalists say the change reflects the political power of the boating industry, not any major change in the manatee's status. They say the reclassification results largely from the state's decision to alter its system for classifying imperiled species, a technical change that automatically knocks the manatee down a notch, creating the illusion that it is recovering. They say this will provide the state Legislature with an excuse to reduce the number of slow-speed zones and avoid funding programs to help manatees.

"We want them to be fully recovered, but that's not what this is about," said Pat Rose, director of government relations for the Save the Manatee Club. "This is a political reclassification that will lead to them being more imperiled, not less."

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