January 7, 2016

PLF victory! Feds finally act on manatee petition

By Christina M. Martin Attorney

It’s taken eight years and two lawsuits to get the government to follow up on its own experts’ recommendation to reclassify the manatee from “endangered” to “threatened.” Today, in response to a PLF Atlantic Center lawsuit on behalf of Save Crystal River, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service announced that it is formally proposing a rule to downlist the manatee’s status, because it is no longer in danger of extinction. The decision is not a surprise: FWS experts originally recommended downlisting the manatee back in 2007, when there were an estimated 3,300 manatees; now thStepsToDownlistingere are more than 6,000 in Florida waters.

We are glad to see that the manatee is doing well and that the government is finally following the requirements of the Endangered Species Act. Unfortunately, years of delay have become the norm for the FWS. The story behind today’s decision is a perfect example.In 2005, 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 Florida 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.

Because of our lawsuit, the FWS 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. According to a recent article in the Daytona Beach News-Journal, the FWS failure to act may have been based on a request from Governor Charlie Crist. Of course, politics should have no roll in determining the status of a species.

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

In 2012, Save Crystal River, a nonprofit group made up of citizens around Crystal River, Florida, that is spending $1.6 million to restore habitat in King’s Bay, 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 federal restrictions in their neighborhoods grow and its members were worried that if they didn’t hold the government accountable, they would find their community eventually tied up in the same excessive red tape that they observed elsewhere.

In December of 2012, PLF filed a petition to downlist the manatee and waited. By law, the Service should have responded within 90-days, but after more than one year of delay tactics and broken promises, we sued. In response to our lawsuit, the FWS in July 2014 fulfilled its legal duty and published its “90-day finding” concluding that our petition presents substantial scientific evidence that warrants further review. The FWS then had 12 more months, according to the law, to decide whether or not to reclassify the manatee. But when the FWS failed to act in July 2015, we sent the FWS a warning that it had 60 more days to fulfill its duty, or Save Crystal River would once again sue the government to force it to follow the law. This fall, we filed yet another lawsuit. And the lawsuit had its intended effect. Just a few days before the government’s answer to our lawsuit was due, the FWS has finally announced that it will publish a proposed rule to reclassify the manatee as threatened.

I wish I could say that this was the end of the story. But the Fish and Wildlife Service’s action is only a proposed rule. Under the law, the FWS will have 12 months to either adopt the proposed rule or to explain why it won’t adopt the proposed rule. Just last year, in a case involving the reclassification of the wood stork, we had to threaten to sue the FWS before the government adopted its proposed rule to downlist the wood stork from endangered to threatened – only six months late. Hopefully we won’t have to threaten yet another lawsuit to get the federal government to do its job here.

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