Life in the Sunshine State apparently agrees with bald eagles. At least state wildlife officials think it does. Wednesday, they removed the national symbol from Florida's list of threatened species.
The state's Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission also voted to lessen protection of Jimmy Buffett's environmental cause celebre, the manatee. The oddly endearing sea cow has been downgraded from endangered to threatened status.
Florida's three-tiered wildlife protection system (not to be confused with the state's two-tiered property tax regime discussed here and here), includes endangered, threatened and, at the lowest level, special concern classifications.
While it's comforting to see wildlife rebound, I share the fear of many environmental groups that the changes might actually hurt the species' encouraging recoveries. This is a particularly valid concern in the case of the manatee.
These creatures don't venture to our Texas shoreline (the farthest west they've been spotted is the Alabama coast), although when we lived in Maryland, one showed up in 1995 in the Chesapeake Bay.
Dubbed Chessie, he was radio-tagged by researchers and swam past the mid-Atlantic states, through New York City and all the way to Rhode Island, further than any manatee had been known to travel. He went back to Florida for the winter (like all good northeastern residents!) and in 1996 again came up the coastline to Virginia. Chessie's last confirmed mid-Atlantic sighting was in 2001.
Back in the animal's usual home habitat, the Florida Wildlife Service sent its own staff to evaluate manatees before making the protective status changes. They found that while manatee numbers there have risen, the species is still quite vulnerable to man-made and natural threats.
State scientists estimate that currently there are fewer than 2,500 mature manatees in Florida. And last year's 396 manatee deaths was the second-highest mortality rate ever recorded.
Don't expect things to improve much, especially with the state's population growing and developers and recreational boaters pushing hard for fewer restrictions on boat docks and other waterway controls.
Those boats are a major problem for the lumbering manatees, as evidenced by the gashes and scars from boats on the animals' backs. We've seen several of these creatures, both when we visited the state as vacationers and later when we lived there. And not a single animal we saw was unscathed.
We knew it was a manatee refuge, as a natural spring keeps the water feeding into the St. John's River a year-round constant of 72 degrees, the animals' preferred H2O temperature.
But we didn't realize that we'd be able to walk a path right along the waterway and get such close looks at the animals in their natural habitat. It was a remarkable afternoon.
The Florida status changes won't go into effect until management plans are approved for each species and that could take more than a year. State officials also were quick to point out that bald eagles and manatees are still protected under several federal laws, including the Endangered Species Act.
Given the actions and attempted actions of Congress in environmental areas, that's not much reassurance.
If you contribute to these or other IRS-qualified organizations, be sure to keep track of your donation to claim as a possible charitable tax deduction if you itemize.
And if you file a state income tax return, look to see if the form includes a conservation check-off program. There you can contribute your state refund, or a part of it, or just donate even if you owe, to state wildlife preservation efforts.
Eagle photo © Hope Rutledge
Manatee and calf photo © Takako Uno