First wolves, then bears, then crocodiles, and now manatees; according to this article from LiveScience the “sea cows” may be downgraded to “threatened” (from “endangered”) by the U.S. Fish and Wildlife service. Manatees seem to be next a growing line of large, charismatic animals that may lose their status as endangered species. As I’ve written before, these decisions seem to be made upon the observation that populations of the animals in question are now viable and not in imminent danger, although how stable or sustainable they are is yet to be seen. Even more important, losing endangered status loosens rules about development, hunting, etc., in a move that favors developers and businessmen more than the animals.
According to the LiveScience article, a cenus of the manatees revealed 2,812 animals, up from 1,267 in 1991, although in 2006 3,116 manatees were counted. Despite actual numbers, however, much of the debate seems to revolve around boating and boating rules, some areas restricting boaters to 5 mph or less to avoid hurting the marine mammals. What I’m wondering is why such rules shoud be relaxed regardless of how many manatees there are; just because population numbers have gone up doesn’t mean we should start allowing people to zip around inhabited waterways, maiming or killing the animals.
This news, of course, comes not long after 26 manatees died around the Fort Myers, FL area, possibly from a local red tide. The year before a total of 417 manatee deaths were recorded, and given that manatees are slow to mature and are not terribly prolific, such losses are indeed significant. It also also interesting to note this short report (which came without a date but I assume speaks only for 1996), citing a massive die-off of 260 manatees in the first half of 1996.
While manatees may be doing better (or maybe we’re simply better at counting their populations) there is still no reason to loosen restrictions on development or boating laws. Even so, manatees and other animals represent a major problem with conservation today; protected species protect the habitat, but if the species is delisted the habitat is no longer protected. Indeed, at least in the U.S., species are protected but the actual habitats they utilize are not, so once a species recovers development can begin again and cause more problems, and there has been growing opposition to the Endangered Species Act in general. To give a more concrete example, in New Jersey there exists a poisonous snake known as the Timber Rattler (Crotalus horridus), and while it’s illegal to actually harm the snake developers have been encroaching on its habitat, bringing middle-class McMansion owners in closer contact with the endangered reptiles. Thus, because of the government’s failure to protect habitat in favor of development, animals are slowly squeezed out or eliminated, all the while appearing “legal”.
If conservation is to be of any success, species and critical habitats must be conserved; continuing to merely protect species will only allow them to be slowly pushed out and eliminated as they conflict with development interests. I worry that the relaxation of the already loose laws protecting species will make things worse for the protected species, and populations should be protected and monitored for some years after they’ve “recovered” to truly determine how well they’re doing. Numbers alone are not enough to determine a population’s health or sustainability, although that seems to be all many officials seem to care about.