September 25, 2015

PLF sues feds for stalling, again, on manatee petition

By Christina M. Martin Attorney

It’s been three years since PLF filed a petition on behalf of Save Crystal River to downlist the manatee from “endangered” to “threatened.” Yet the government has continued to ignore the requirements of the Endangered Species Act, forcing us to again file a lawsuit to compel action. Our petition asked the government to follow its own five-year status review recommendation to reclassify the species as threatened. That recommendation was based on an estimated manatee population of only 3,300. Today, there are over 6,000 manatees in Florida waters. But instead of celebrate the manatee’s improvements and reclassify it accordingly, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service has stalled at every step.FWSManateePhoto

The roots of this suit go all the way back to 2005, when PLF sued the government on behalf of the Florida Home Builders Association to compel the Fish and Wildlife Service to review the status of the manatee and 88 other species. The Endangered Species Act requires the federal government to check on the status of an endangered or threatened species every five years to make sure that its regulations (and priorities) match the overall status of the species. But the FWS had ignored that deadline as to 89 different species in Florida alone. Because of our lawsuit, the Fish and Wildlife Service finished its five-year review of the manatee in 2007, concluding that it should be downlisted. But then it ignored its own experts’ advice and did nothing.

Members of Save Crystal River, Inc.
Members of Save Crystal River, Inc.

In 2012, Save Crystal River, a nonprofit organization made up of citizens around Crystal River, Florida, asked PLF to help hold the FWS accountable. Save Crystal River was concerned about the federal government’s growing presence in the community, despite the local government’s own protections for manatees and the manatee’s growing numbers. Save Crystal River had watched the FWS pass unreasonable restrictions elsewhere and its members were worried that if they didn’t hold the government accountable, they would find their community tied up in the same red tape.

PLF filed the petition to downlist the manatee and waited. By law, the Service should have responded within 90-days, but after more than one year of broken promises, stalls, and still no response, we sued. In response to our lawsuit, the FWS on July 2, 2014 fulfilled its legal duty and published its “90-day finding” concluding that the petition presents substantial scientific evidence that warrants further review. Thus, under the Endangered Species Act, the FWS had 12 more months to decide whether or not to reclassify the manatee. But July 2, 2015 came and passed with no word from the FWS. So, pursuant to the ESA, we sent the FWS a warning that it had 60 more days to fulfill its duty, or Save Crystal River would file a lawsuit to force it to abide by the law. The 60 days have passed, so today we filed a lawsuit in a federal court to force the government to act.

It’s a shame that deadlines and the requirements of the law mean so little to the federal government, until you get a court involved. But it is also a reminder of the brilliance in the Founders’ idea of using the courts as a check and balance against the legislative and executive branches.

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