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Naples Daily News, December 29, 2008

POLL: Wildlife groups ask feds to revise critical habitat zones for manatees
By Eric Staats

— Conservation groups are petitioning the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service to revise the boundaries of critical habitat for the endangered Florida manatee in Southwest Florida.

The new boundaries are part of a statewide proposal to update the critical habitat designation for the manatee for the first time in more than 30 years.

“It’s an oversight that needs to be corrected, and we’re hoping it will make a difference,” said manatee biologist Patti Thompson, the principal author of the petition.

The Fish and Wildlife Service has 90 days after receiving the petition to decide whether to move forward with a public review of proposed revisions.

The agency recognizes the need for updated critical habitat boundaries but has higher priorities when it comes to manatee protection, such as preserving warm water refuges, Fish and Wildlife Service spokesman Chuck Underwood said.

“It would be useful at some point to revise the critical habitat boundaries,” Underwood said.

The Wildlife Advocacy Project, the Save the Manatee Club, the Center for Biological Diversity and Defenders of Wildlife filed the 64-page petition in mid-December.

The revision of critical habitat for manatees would enlarge the area where projects, such as marinas, would encounter an additional permitting hurdle.

The Endangered Species Act prohibits the “destruction or adverse modification” of critical habitat, a different legal standard than a related requirement that a project not jeopardize the continued existence of a species.

“That (critical habitat) may be something that isn’t getting the kind of attention it deserves,” said attorney Eric Glitzenstein, founder of the Wildlife Advocacy Project in Washington, D.C.

He said the objective of critical habitat designation isn’t to turn down projects but to encourage developers to propose projects outside of critical habitat in the first place.

That would increase the predictability of the permitting process, he said.

One marine industry representative said he is wary whenever the Save the Manatee Club gets involved in petitioning the federal government.

“They usually have an end game of imposing additional restrictions on boaters,” Southwest Florida Marine Industry Association executive director Ken Stead said.

Currently designated critical habitat amounts to a long list of general geographic areas.

The petition proposes more specific delineations by geographic area and identifies habitat features that deserve special attention.

For example, the petition cites warm water sites, food sources, travel corridors, shelter sites and fresh water sources.

The designation reflects new scientific information that has been accumulating about manatee habits since the original critical habitat designation in 1976.

In Southwest Florida, for example, recent tracking information has shown that manatees typically respond to drops in Gulf water temperatures by seeking warmer inland sites.

The extent of seagrass losses also has become better known, whether by boat propeller scarring, coastal development or massive freshwater releases from Lake Okeechobee, according to the petition.

Collisions with boats is the leading cause of deaths of manatees in Florida, according to the petition.

The petition also cites toxic algae blooms, habitat loss, entrapment in canal locks or floodgates and climate change.

Although the accuracy of counting the total population has been challenged, aerial surveys and ground counts tallied 2,817 manatees in Florida in 2007.

Scientists are hoping to create a model to predict population trends using long-term databases of manatee deaths, photo IDs of individual animals and tracking devices.

© 2008 The E.W. Scripps Co.

Photo © Paul S. Hamilton