photo by Robert Bonde, U.S. Geological Survey
I have been a pretty avid hiker since my teenage years, and during all of those decades I have done most of my hiking in forests where bears are plentiful - the Montana Rockies, the Green Mountains in Vermont and the longleaf pine stands of northeastern Florida.
Yet I have never once spotted a bear in the wild. I’d like to, under the right circumstances: namely not being within a half-mile of a grizzly, nor anywhere near a mama black bear with her cubs. But I am obviously going about this the wrong way. If I want to see wild bears, I ought to move to New Jersey and install a backyard swimming pool.
On the other hand, though I am just a part-time resident and a very occasional boater, I have encountered manatees many times in Florida. I have seen them pop up in boat ramps on the Intracoastal Waterway, alongside the ancient fortress walls of the Castillo de San Marcos in St. Augustine, and in the 72-degree waters of Blue Spring State Park near Sanford, where they gather in cold weather to escape the chilly St. Johns River. I can even see them sometimes from the balcony of my downtown Fort Lauderdale apartment as they swim in the New River, 17 stories below.
Manatees are not as pretty, and arguably not as cute, as your average bear. But they have been a pleasingly accessible big-ticket mammal in my experience.
Yet despite that accessibility, manatees have been considered endangered for the entirety of the period in which I have encountered them. For a species supposedly facing a significant risk of extinction, manatees are oddly easy to find.
Now, however, wildlife officials seem ready to recognize what many laypeople could have told them long ago. Manatees no longer face extinction, not even in Florida, where careless and speeding boaters pose the biggest risks to their population.
In a news conference last week, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service announced that the manatee population should be reclassified as “threatened,” rather than endangered. Officials said the change reflected a recovering population; conservationists counted a little over 1,200 manatees in Florida back in 1991, while the current estimate is over 6,300. Worldwide, the FWS estimates the manatee population at around 13,000.
The announcement marked the beginning of a 90-day period in which the public can submit comments to the agency on the proposed change. The FWS will then make a final decision.
Despite the good news of rebounding manatee populations, there are those who oppose the change in designation. U.S. Rep. Vern Buchanan, R-Fla., has already submitted a letter calling the proposed change “misguided and premature.” Pat Rose, the executive director of the Save the Manatee Club, told the Miami Herald that the FWS’ reassurance that existing protections would remain in place were insufficient.
“Between 2010 and 2013 the population went backwards and they’re not even talking about that,” Rose said. Critics of the plan suggest that population size should not be the arbiter of protections’ success, but rather how effectively those protections keep animals from harm.
The Endangered Species Act is something of a blunt legislative tool for securing wildlife conservation goals. It is not about the humane treatment of individual animals, despite critics’ protests. The law is instead designed to protect a species’ overall gene pool in extreme circumstances, where that species’ very survival is at risk. As such, it promotes severe measures that would not be applied in cases where the danger is less acute.
Manatees, and all sorts of other marine life, still warrant protection from careless treatment and resulting injury and cruelty. Lacking natural predators, manatees face threats mainly from human activity, ranging from habitat loss to deadly collisions with fast-moving watercraft or boat propellers. In order to continue to promote the manatee’s recovery and safety, such legal protection will remain important for a long time, if not indefinitely. Some such protections will remain in place due to The Marine Mammal Protection Act at the federal level and the Florida Manatee Sanctuary Act at the state level, neither of which will be affected by the FWS’ decision.
It is worth remembering, too, that threatened species still receive many, though not all, of the federal protections extended to endangered species. Recognizing that manatees are threatened rather than endangered would mainly give the FWS the authority to fine-tune protections to best meet the needs of populations in different areas. Designating manatees as threatened would recognize the continued need for protection while allowing greater flexibility in delivering it.
As I wrote not long ago in connection with the greater sage grouse, partnerships between local governments and private interests can secure conditions in which wildlife gets the protection it needs while human activities can continue in productive and safe ways. While such cooperation isn’t always easy to arrange, it ultimately benefits everyone more than the harsher measures necessary when a creature is truly on the brink of extinction.
Applying the Endangered Species Act’s draconian provisions in situations where they are not warranted is a form of crying wolf, meaning the law may not be available to protect species that really need it. One of those species, in fact, has been the wolf - whose status on and off the endangered list in various states is a controversy of its own.
But that is a tale (or perhaps a tail?) for another day.