Protecting the manatee and other wildlife
It's fortunate the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service put off possibly "upgrading" the West Indian Manatee from endangered to threatened. Budget cuts forced the delay, but as the Tribune's Keith Morelli reports, the review was scheduled just as there had been an alarming spike in manatee deaths. Severe cold in 2010 is blamed for the deaths of 282 manatees, and a persistent Southwest Florida red tide over the last year has killed an estimated 272 manatees. In addition, about 80 to 100 manatees are killed in collisions with boats each year.About 600 manatees have died this year so far - about three a day - compared to 392 all of last year. With the manatee death rate on the upswing, this is not time to reclassify the manatee. But that doesn't mean it should not eventually be considered, or that reclassification should be always be viewed as a threat. Some environmental groups instinctively oppose such an "upgrade," fearing it will result in weaker protections. Their sentiment is understandable, given that development interests and others who oppose safeguards often push the status change. But such reclassifications demonstrate the effectiveness of wildlife protections. Indeed, critics often claim the Endangered Species Act does little good, but it has helped save hundreds of creatures that were on the brink of extinction, including the whopping crane, peregrine falcon and grizzly bear. Insisting that an animal remain listed as endangered despite improved numbers is deceptive and undermines the law's intent to protect animals that truly are in jeopardy. Reclassification does not weaken protections - it acknowledges they are working. As Fish and Wildlife spokesman Chuck Underwood says, regulators carefully monitor safeguards and the animal's status. They are not going to suddenly abandon the policies that brought about its revival. Those protections may never change - but it also may be appropriate over time to loosen regulations or turn over management to the states. The Obama administration, for instance, is considering lifting protections for the gray wolf that once was hunted to near extinction. The predator is thriving and expanding its range. The Fish and Wildlife Service wants the states to manage wolf numbers. This troubles wildlife groups because where unchecked wolf numbers have proved a threat to livestock and other wildlife, the states are likely to allow some hunting. Such hunting plans need to be scrutinized, but highly restricted hunting does not mean a return to the days when governments sought to exterminate the canine. Insisting the federal government maintain eternal control, regardless of an animal's numbers, will likely generate more opposition and distrust of the law. The wildlife service should be cautious about reclassifications, but their decisions should be based on science, not fears. Wildlife activists should see the justified upgrade of an endangered creature represents an environmental triumph, not a threat.