From: Ludmilla Lelis, The Orlando Sentinel, Fla.
Published February 4, 2005 12:00 AM

Florida Revisits Manatee Status

Feb. 4—State wildlife officials took a jump Thursday toward potentially taking manatees off the endangered-species list, rejecting environmentalists' concerns that Florida's classification system is flawed.

The Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission, meeting in Panama City Beach, unanimously agreed to go ahead with changes to the state's criteria for defining endangered, threatened or species of special concern. The change eventually could reduce or eliminate protection for some endangered animals, including manatees and bald eagles.

"The recommended upgrades will make Florida's listing process the most effective, science-based recovery-oriented process in the world," said Dan Sullivan, the agency's endangered-species coordinator.

The commission had postponed in November 2003 the thorny question of whether the manatee should be reclassified from endangered to threatened because of complaints about the criteria. However, if these criteria changes are finalized at the commission's April meeting, officials could immediately revisit the manatee's status. But reclassifying the animal would still likely be several months away.

None of this would change the manatee's status as endangered under federal law, although a separate federal review is also under way. Dan Dvorak, president of the Brevard-based boaters group Citizens for Florida's Waterways, supports changing the manatee's status and criticized any further delays.

"It's all stalling tactics," Dvorak said. "They're trying to delay the inevitable of taking the manatee off the endangered-species list."

In 1999, the state wildlife commission adopted new standards for judging species. The standards originate from the IUCN, formerly the International Union for Conservation of Nature, a union of more than 10,000 scientists from 140 countries. State officials hoped that by adopting the IUCN criteria that Florida would have an objective, science-based system.

However, the system came under fire when the red-cockaded woodpecker, an endangered species under federal law, was reclassified from threatened to species of special concern during the state's review.

Environmentalists said the change happened not because the woodpecker was doing better, but because the state's three categories are mismatched with the IUCN's four categories. Environmental groups repeated their worries at Thursday's meeting, saying that other species, including the manatee, could get downlisted for the same reason as the woodpecker, leading to weaker protections.

Information from The Associated Press was used in this report.

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