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U.S. needs to do more to protect Florida manatees

The Florida manatee is an endangered species in need of increased protection, but the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service (FWS) has decided not to provide it, with its North Florida office citing higher priorities and budget constraints in a news release Tuesday.

The FWS designates critical habitats for endangered species, but the manatees’ critical habitats have not been revised since 1976. Clearly, the government is neglecting the manatee, and the FWS needs to make the species a higher priority.

Critical habitats are defined in the Endangered Species Act as areas that contain features essential to the conservation of a species and those that may require special protection. However, they do not guarantee protection and development is still allowed.

Property development over the past 30 years has surely changed the habits of manatees and what areas they use. The FWS freely admitted that critical areas are in need of revision, especially since the designations were made before the FWS had developed regulations for determining what makes a habitat critical.

“Instead, it describes specific waterways that were known to be important concentration areas for manatees at that time,” the release said.

That means the designations may not have even been accurate in 1976 and certainly aren’t accurate today. Dave Hankla, field supervisor of the Jacksonville office, said in a statement that much more would need to be taken into consideration for the designations to be revised.

“In addition to the most obvious habitat needed for the Florida manatee — warm water refuges — we also may consider adequate forage areas near these refuges, calving and nursing areas and important travel corridors throughout the state,” he said.

Current regulations do little to protect the manatee. There were 97 killed by boats last year, more than any other year, according to the state’s Fish and Wildlife Research Institute. The institute announced the findings last week and noted a spike in deaths in the Tampa Bay area.

The FWS release did not mention what its higher priorities were or how much critical habitat revisions would cost. Having decades to implement these much-needed revisions, the service only considered them in response to a joint petition from conservation groups.

One of the FWS’ higher priorities appears to be protecting the jaguar, a species almost non-existent in the U.S. It announced Tuesday that it will set aside critical habit for the jaguar and develop a recovery plan. Only four or five jaguars have been documented in the U.S. in the past 10 years, according to The Associated Press.

Manatees are concentrated in the U.S. The largest population — more than 3,000 — is found in Florida, according to conservationist group Defenders of Wildlife.

The U.S. government has neglected the manatee for too long and needs to do more to protect this American species.