MIAMI – The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service said Monday it is considering reclassifying the manatee as threatened instead of endangered, a move that would indicate the animal has rebounded from the brink of extinction.
The manatee would still remain protected under the federal Endangered Species Act, making it illegal to harass, poach or kill the animals.
A five-year Fish and Wildlife review of manatees is set to be released later this week, agency spokesman Chuck Underwood said. He would not say whether it will recommend the changed status because it is not yet complete.
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"Even if we propose the reclassification, that does not change any of the federal protections out there at all," Underwood said. "And it could take some time before we ever reach a point of formally proposing reclassification."
According to an internal memo obtained by The Washington Post, the service will says that the manatee "no longer meets the definition of an endangered species."
Underwood would not confirm the memo's assertion on Monday, but said reclassification is under consideration.
Endangered status means an animal is at a foreseeable risk of extinction. Threatened status means a species could become endangered in the future if protections are not maintained.
This year's annual manatee census recorded 2,812 of the animals, also known as sea cows, in Florida water. Last year, scientists found 3,116.
In 1991 — the survey's first year — 1,267 manatees were counted in the state.
Patrick Rose, executive director of the Save the Manatee Club, said a classification switch could mean changes in boating and development restrictions that were established to protect manatees.
"This is not the time to be moving to say that they're going to be downlisting (the manatees) and then dilute the protection for them," Rose said.
The Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission voted last year to change the manatee's status from endangered to threatened.