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Manatees in the Middle of the Federal Budget Fight?


West Indian manatees at Three Sisters Springs on the Crystal River in west-central Florida. (U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service photo)

An amendment offered this week to the House Interior Appropriations Bill would keep the federal government from extending the manatee protection area around Crystal River, FL. The mechanics of the proposed amendment may seem a bit convoluted, but the sentiment on Florida’s Gulf Coast certainly isn’t. From the time late in June that the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service announced that it intended to make an emergency rule permanent that would reduce boat speeds in additional areas, many in the community began shouting that it was an unwarranted federal intrusion of their private-property rights. On the other hand, many said at public meetings that the area’s economic health rests largely on the hundreds of thousands of tourists who visit Citrus County each year to see manatees, and that anything endangering the large marine mammals is endangering them.

The West Indian Manatee is an endangered specie. Biologists estimate there are 3,300 of them on both of Florida’s coasts. They’re large—mature adults weigh about 800 pounds each—and slow-moving. They like the same calm, warm waters near shore and in estuaries that boaters favor. And that’s where the problems come in. Several manatees have been killed in recent years after being struck by pleasure-craft. Authorities say the rate of killing is on the increase.

Florida began protecting manatees in 1893. In 1983, the Crystal River National Wildlife Refuge was established And in the last few decades, an aggressive program of educating boaters through signs and posters in marinas and enforcing reduced boat speeds has given scientists hope about manatee survival, beginning to hint that perhaps the status should be changed from “endangered” to “threatened.”

The emergency rule the Fish and Wildlife Service proposed making permanent expands protections to additional parts of Crystal River, including Kings Bay, and would allow FWS officials to temporarily close some areas of the shore during manatee mating season.

A two-hour special meeting of the Crystal River City Council late last month reached a unanimous conclusion to oppose the proposed new manatee protections. The area chamber of commerce also came out against the federal rule. Rep. Richard Nugent (R-FL5) made his feelings on the issue known by proposing the appropriations amendment.

Others are just as vocal in arguing for the protections. The Save the Manatee Club, founded by the singer Jimmy Buffett and former Florida governor and senator Bob Graham, has organized a “click-to-email” campaign to add public comments to the record for the next month. The National Resources Defense Council is spreading the word as well. And the quotes in the St. Petersburg Times from one community voice, Edna Mattos, head of the Citrus County Tea Party Patriots, are getting a lot of mileage: “We can’t elevate nature above people,” she said. “That’s against the Bible and the Bill of Rights.”

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