DEBORAH AMOS, host:
Oh, but can they save the Manatee, the large slow-moving marine mammal, an endangered species in the state of Florida. Now, wildlife officials there want to down-list the Manatee, moving it from endangered to threatened. Supporters of the move say it's a sign of the animal's comeback. Environmental groups say, it has more to do with the power of developers.
From Miami, NPR's Greg Allen reports.
GREG ALLEN: As gentle vegetarians they spend most of their time foraging in rivers and bays for seagrass, Manatees have no natural predators. But they do face significant danger mostly from power boats and their propellers.
Dr. MAYA RODRIGUEZ (Park Veterinarian, Seaquarium): The one that you see a little bit on the surface. That's Senora. She's the one that has the pyothorax.
ALLEN: Dr. Maya Rodriguez directs care of Senora and six other Manatees being rehabilitated here at Miami Seaquarium. Pyothorax injuries happen when a Manatee is struck by the hull of a fast-moving boat, fracturing its ribs, an injury that's usually fatal.
In the past, Manatees with these injuries where euthanized. But after 10 months of treatment, Rodriguez says Senora is doing well.
Dr. RODRIGUEZ: We're going to continue to see this type of injury because of the boat impacts and the boat's mortality increasing. So what we're trying to do is can we deal this. You know, how can we make it heal faster? How can we treat it better? You know, how can we improve because the injuries are not going to go away.
ALLEN: Depending on whom you talk to, it's either a good time or a not so good time for the Florida manatee. Take the issue of mortality, for example. Last year, a record number of manatees died - more than 400 - boats were the leading cause.
Kipp Frohlich of Florida's Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission says overall, the manatee population continues to grow, so it's important to keep that number in perspective.
Mr. KIPP FROHLICH (Biological Administrator, Bureau of Protected Species Management, Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission): Four hundred and sixteen dead manatees in the state is a lot of dead manatees for a course of a year. But in reality, it's the proportion of that - how does that fit into the population? As a wildlife population grows, you actually get, you know, moreof those animals are dying.
ALLEN: Frohlich supports his agency's proposal to change the manatee's status from endangered to threatened. That's a proposal that was tentatively approved by the Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission earlier this year. But just recently, Florida's Republican governor, Charlie Crist, stepped in and asked the commission to postpone its final decision until new members had a chance to study the issue.
That was a big disappointment to Steven Webster. He's with the Marine Contractors Association, a trade group representing marina and dock builders that has longed pushed for the manatee's down-listing. The change in the manatee's status, he says, is part of a management plan that's been in the works for more than a year.
Mr. STEVEN WEBSTER (Executive Director, Florida Marine Contractors Association): We've heard people say that, oh my, if this plan is adopted, if reclassification takes place, speed zones will go away, permitting rules and restrictions will go away, and it will be utter chaos in Florida. No, that's not going to be the case - not by any stretch of the imagination. Instead, what finally are seeing is a system based on good evidence and on sound logic rather than intuition and assumption.
ALLEN: The problem, says Patrick Rose of Save the Manatee, is the selective way in which Florida's Wildlife officials are using scientific criteria to justify a change in the manatee's status. Both the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service and the World Conservation Union, he notes, list the Florida manatee as endangered.
Mr. PATRICK ROSE (Executive Director, Save the Manatee): When you have a species that could be losing 50 percent of its population in the next three generations, and you want to call that threatened, that's just not consistent.
ALLEN: Rose wants to keep the Florida manatee on the state's endangered list, and also to change the rule that has led to its proposed down-listing. Florida recently down-listed another species considered endangered by the federal government, the red cockaded woodpecker. And Rose fears other endangered species may soon follow. These are decisions, he charges, that are being made not by scientists but by politicians to accommodate growth and development.
Mr. ROSE: And it's especially acute when you have an aquatic species, a marine mammal like the manatee that depends on the near shore habitats, the revering systems and so forth. And that's where the land prices are escalating the most. And so you want to have - they want to have more development occur in those aquatic ecosystems.
ALLEN: Florida's Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission meets again in December. Staff members believe that, by then, they can satisfy Governor Crist's questions and finalize their long-delayed plans to move the Florida manatee off the state's list of endangered species.
Greg Allen, NPR News, Miami.
(Soundbite of "I'm Growing Older But Not Up" by Jimmy Buffett)
Mr. JIMMY BUFFETT (Singer/Songwriter): (Singing) Sometimes I see me as an old manatee Heading south as the waters grow colder
He tries to steer clear of the hum drum so near
It cuts prop scars deep in his shoulders
That's how it flows right to the end
His body's still flexible but that
Barnacle brain don't bend.