January 9, 2017

Federal agency flouts Endangered Species Act again

By Christina M. Martin Attorney
Members of Save Crystal River, Inc.

Today, PLF sent a warning to the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service that unless the agency adopts its proposed rule to reclassify the manatee within 60-days, PLF will sue on behalf of Save Crystal River, Inc., to compel downlisting the status of the species from endangered to threatened.

It is disappointing, but not surprising that the agency is once again ignoring the law, as you will understand with a brief review of the species history:

  • In 2005, PLF sued to force the federal government to complete status reviews for 89 species, including the manatee. The Endangered Species Act requires the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service to conduct status reviews of listed species every 5 years, but the agency regularly ignores that requirement. The last 5-year status review for the manatee at that time was 14-years before the lawsuit.
  • In 2007, as a result of PLF’s lawsuit, the government completed its long overdue status review, which concluded that the manatee was no longer in danger of extinction (i.e., “endangered”) and thus should be reclassified as only “threatened.” The government never acted on that advice.
  • In 2012, PLF represented Save Crystal River (SCR) in petitioning the government to follow its own recommendations from the 2007 status review and downlist the manatee. The government refused to respond as required by law by issuing a “90-day finding” on the petition. It requested more time, but then broke those promises, too.
  • In 2014, PLF sued on behalf of SCR, forcing the government to issue a positive and long overdue 90-day finding. That finding triggered a one-year deadline for a “12-month finding,” but the government missed that deadline, too.
  • In 2015, PLF again sued on behalf of SCR, forcing the agency to issue the 12-month finding.  In response, the government finally complied and proposed a rule to remove the manatee’s endangered status and reclassify it as threatened. The government then had another 12-months to adopt the rule or publish an alternative decision, but it has once again ignored deadlines required by the law.
  • Today we sent a 60-day notice, warning that unless the agency follows the Endangered Species Act and reclassifies the manatee, we will sue yet again.

There is no reason for the agency to delay. The manatee will still enjoy state and federal protections when reclassified as threatened. Moreover, the manatee’s numbers continue to surge. In 2007, the Fish and Wildlife Service’s status review that first recommended downlisting the manatee estimated 3,300 manatees in Florida waters. One decade and two lawsuits later, the agency has failed to reclassify the manatee, despite its experts’ advice, even as the U.S. manatee population has doubled and the total international population reached more than 13,000.

Instead of celebrating the improvement, the agency’s own manatee regulations are needlessly slowing down SCR’s multi-million dollar restoration work to habitat in the waters around Crystal River, Florida. This work benefits manatees and many other creatures. The government should take the next logical (and legally required) step and downlist the manatee.  Otherwise, we will have to sue yet again.

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