Manatees in Florida should not be considered endangered and should instead be given a lower protection status, at least according to a local non-profit, Save Crystal Lake Inc. Endangered species are defined by the Endangered Species Act of 1973 (ESA) as “any species in danger of extinction throughout all or a significant portion of its range,” a definition which Save Crystal Lake does not believe fits the robust mammal and has petitioned the government to request that they reexamine that very idea.
Save Crystal Lake Inc, is not a reactionary group of anti-environmentalists. They claim to love the gentle grey creatures. However they feel that they have had adequate time to repopulate the murky waters of Florida’s coastal areas. They do not want to remove any of the major protections afforded by the Endangered Species Act, but they also want its status to reflect what they perceive to be a scientific fact and have therefore asked the government to downgrade the animal to “threatened” in light of recent evidence which suggests that the overall manatee population of Florida has recovered.
Back in 2007, Save Crystal Lake had originally attempted to exercise their rights as a citizens of the United States to petition the regulatory agency responsible for administering the law, which in this case was the United States Fish and Wildlife Service (USFWS), to reconsider one of its rules. However after years of waiting they realized that the government agency was not going to answer their request. So, they hired the Pacific Legal Foundation(PLF) , a very controversial group which focuses on individual rights and the rights of land owners in cases across the country.
Save Crystal Lake worked together with the PLF to put together a second petition for the USFWS to reconsider their ruling about the manatee’s status as an “endangered species.” However they did not stop there. The PLF then sued the local agency as well as the USWFS itself for failing to respond to Save Crystal Lake’s original petition in 2007, claiming that their abrogation of duty alone warranted a decision in their client’s favor. The other argument which they have made refers to a 2007 review of the area’s manatee populations, which was performed by the USFWS itself.
In the report the agency claimed that the manatee did not seem to be truly “endangered” any longer and that it should be down listed to “threatened” so as to be more accurate.
Right now both the lawsuit and the petition are at a legal standstill. The petition has a required 90 day comment period during which members of the general public can chime in and give their own thoughts about the issue while the USFWS conducts its own surveys and analyses of manatee population. The court case is also stalled, as the defendant, a regulator from the local bureaucracy, has yet to respond to the charge.
The issue as presented by the PLF and their client may seem very cut and dry, but in reality it is actually quite the opposite. The non-profit certainly deserves to be compensated for the agency’s alleged failure to perform its duties under federal law. However the law is also quite clear about another issue, which is the absolute authority and discretion of an agency which is permitted to conduct itself in any manner it feels is conducive towards accomplishing its goals. In other words, reports and recommendations compiled by subordinates mean almost nothing to the organization’s leaders and most certainly hold no legal value. What does matter is the law which they are attempting to uphold through the promulgation of regulatory rules.
In the case of the ESA, such rule-making does involve declaring certain species as being “endangered” while delisting others as their ecological situation stabilizes. These actions require the regulator to obtain a large amount of knowledge relating to both the current situation faced by the species under examination as well as its standing under both statutory and regulatory rules, both of which are extremely complex and multifaceted. To put it simply, contrary to the beliefs of the Save Crystal Lake organization, a large manatee population in a single given year does not justify changing its status under the Endangered Species Act. This is because sheer population size is but one factor involved in the decisions made by the agency when it considers whether a specie should be protected by law.
While the strong manatee population numbers have certainly helped Save Crystal Lake’s argument that they should no longer be considered endangered species, they still have not accounted for the many dangers faced by the manatee in its natural habitat, most of which are due to human encroachment and harassment. There is also the problem of red tides, which can kill 800 of the gentle mammals easily in a single night. The point here is that any given population, no matter how large, cannot be delisted if it is under constant threat of death, as manatees are in Florida.
Of course, bureaucratic institutions do not make decisions based solely on logic or blind obedience to the letter of the law, which is of course itself prone to different interpretations. Thus their decision may go either way.They may stick with status quo or strike out and say that the manatee is not an endangered species after all and then declare the aquatic beast merely threatened. Hopefully this event will inspire a dialogue between Floridians and the USFWS, which is still waiting for their letters and calls. If anything prevents regulatory fiascos such as this from happening, it is good community relations, something which the USFWS bureaucrats had to learn the hard way it seems.
Opinion By Andrew Waddell