WEST PALM BEACH, Fla. – The state wildlife commission has voted to take the manatee off Florida's endangered species list, saying the animal's population is on the rebound.
The Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission voted unanimously Wednesday to designate the manatee as a threatened species rather than endangered. It also voted to remove the bald eagle from its list of threatened species.
State officials said the decisions would not affect how the species are protected. Both the bald eagle and manatee remain protected under federal law, including the 1973 Endangered Species Act. The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service considers the manatee endangered and the bald eagle threatened.
"There will be no less protection," commission spokesman Henry Cabbage said.
But some environmentalists said the reclassifications could set in motion a downward spiral of state funding and protections.
"As species like the manatee are reclassified to a less imperiled status before their populations have actually recovered, state funding for research, management and law enforcement will likely be directed elsewhere," said attorney Martha Collins.
Collins represents 17 environmental groups who last week filed a petition with the state seeking to have the entire protection classification system revamped.
The state's classification system consists of three categories: endangered, threatened and special concern. They are based on a species' population, how fast it is declining and when extinction is projected, among other factors.
Scientists have said the manatee population is expected to drop 50 percent over the next five decades because of habitat loss, boat collisions and red tide algae.
Still, they said the species is not endangered — a classification that denotes species on the brink of extinction.
An annual survey released in February found 3,116 manatees in Florida waters, up from 1,267 in 1991, the first year the census was conducted. But state scientists said the increase shown in the survey is partly a result of better techniques for finding the animals.