In response to a lawsuit by the Pacific Legal Foundation, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service has decided downlisting manatees from endangered to threatened under the federal Endangered Species Act may be warranted and is embarking on a five-year status review as part of the process.
Reviews are important, but when they’re going to be tied to a decision that could alter the fate of a species, they need to contain the best and most updated data and information. Unfortunately for manatees, the data from the winters of 2010-2013 — including record mortality for the species; the worst ever recorded red tide that resulted in manatees being committed to mass graves in southwest Florida; and a new, mysterious cause of death that has not yet even been labeled in the Indian River Lagoon — won’t be in the mix because the most recent two years of data are left out of the models to avoid bias.
A tool used during the review process is the Core Biological Model. In 2013, the Manatee Forum, a group of 22 stakeholder organizations, received an update on this model as it related to the then-anticipated FWS manatee status review.
First, the group was told that the most current data only went through 2012 for the Atlantic and Upper St. Johns River, 2010-2011 for Northwest Florida, and 2009-2010 for Southwest Florida. Data for survival rates only represent the years 2006-2008.
We were also told that previous predictions for red tide estimated severe events in 15 percent of years, but the new model would dial that up to 35 percent to 45 percent of years, based on expert opinion.
As FWS embarks on its manatee status review, we must ensure that it considers all the facts and potential threats to manatees and their habitat, not just what can be plugged into a model. Erring on the side of caution is the prudent course for the agency, but time will tell whether integrity in our Fish and Wildlife Service is the most endangered species of all.
The writer is the director of science and conservation of the Save the Manatee Club.