Today, PLF filed a lawsuit on behalf of Save Crystal River, Inc., against the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Services (FWS) for ignoring a petition to downlist the recovering West Indian manatee. The Service has already acknowledged that the species has recovered to the point that it isn’t endangered–a 2007 scientific review recommended the downlisting. The case for downlisting has only grown since then. The report relied on the “best, current, minimum population estimate” of 3,300 manatees. Since that time, the species has increased to around 5,000 manatees, according to the FWS data published earlier this year. This is great news. Yet the FWS has still not followed its own advice.
More than a year ago, we filed a petition for Save Crystal River, asking the FWS to abide by its own recommendation for the West Indian manatee. According to the Endangered Species Act (ESA), the FWS should have responded within 90 days by deciding whether our petition presented enough information to consider reclassifying the species. If so, the agency would then have another year to evaluate the status of the species. More than one year later, the FWS has still not made the initial 90-day finding.In this case, downlisting the manatee will likely not diminish its legal protections. Threatened species have most of the same protections under the Endangered Species Act. Manatees also enjoy other protections like those in the Florida Manatee Sanctuary Act. These state level protections make it all the more absurd that the FWS has not acted on its own recommendations to downlist the animal. More to the point, it is even more ridiculous that the FWS has failed to make the initial 90-day finding, which simply involves the FWS deciding whether or not it should formally consider our petition.
If the downlisting won’t really change the manatee’s protections or the federal government’s involvement, then why do we care? Most obviously, the government should follow its own rules. Downlisting also impacts federal power. The ESA allows the federal government to control land use and to threaten people with criminal charges even for accidental or harmless activities. When an animal is no longer endangered or threatened, the justification for federal interference disappears. Downlisting to threatened status will make it possible to obtain greater regulatory flexibility and balance the protection of each individual manatee against the costs to the economy, property owners, and other affected parties. Additionally, downlisting the species puts everyone on notice that the species is recovering and soon may not warrant the federal protections of the ESA.