TALLAHASSEE – The Humane Society of the United States, Defenders of Wildlife, In Defense of Animals, National Environmental Trust, Environmental Defense, Save the Manatee Club, Animal Welfare Institute, The Ocean Conservancy, the Florida Chapter of the Sierra Club, and the Sea Turtle Survival League have announced they were filing a legal petition with the Florida Fish & Wildlife Conservation Commission urging the state to revise its imperiled species classification system.
According to a joint press release issued by the groups on May 31, the FWC downlisted the red-cockaded woodpecker despite opposition from many scientists. If the current classification system is not changed, the groups fear that many of Florida’s at-risk species, such as the manatee, northern right whale, Florida panther and Florida black bear could suffer the same fate as the woodpecker, resulting in less protection and misleading the public into thinking these species have recovered.
In 1999, the FWC modified its classification system to incorporate the listing criteria of the World Conservation Union, a world authority on endangered species, except for one critical difference, the groups say. The FWC did not properly align the IUCN’s risk categories with the IUCN’s category names and definitions. Therefore, the IUCN’s “Critically Endangered” category became the FWC’s “Endangered” category. The IUCN’s “Endangered” category became FWC’s “Threatened” category. The IUCN’s third category of “Vulnerable,” is considered the FWC’s “Species of Special Concern.” A species losing nearly 30 percent of its population over 10 years probably would not even make it onto the “Species of Special Concern” list.
Manatees, injured and killed by human activity each year – especially from boat strikes, are presently listed as “Endangered” under both federal and state law. However, after a state review was conducted using the present classification system, the FWC is set to downlist manatees to “Threatened” status in June. “If the FWC had actually adopted the IUCN’s classification system, the manatee would continue to meet the criteria for ‘Endangered’ status,” said Patrick Rose, director of government relations for Save the Manatee Club.
As an example of one of the criteria, under the current classification system a species would have to undergo, or be at risk of undergoing, at least an 80 percent decline in its population in order to be listed as “Endangered.” “For slow-maturing species, such as sea turtles that take up to 35 years to reach reproductive age, recovering a population that has declined by 80 percent would be extremely difficult. Animals such as these warrant full protection long before an arbitrary 80 percent threshold is reached; by then the situation would be critical, and saving species in emergency situations is nearly impossible,” said David Godfrey, executive director of the Sea Turtle Survival League.
The classification system was created to guide the management efforts of the state in order to conserve and recover imperiled species. “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, preventing full recovery,” said Martha Collins, attorney for the groups. “Many of Florida’s species will be downlisted or even delisted, not because their biological status has changed, but simply because the listing criteria used by the FWC has changed. All we are asking through our petition is for the FWC to reconsider their listing criteria and afford Florida’s imperiled species the proper protections they deserve.”