Fury Over a Gentle Giant

Floridians raise a ruckus over manatees as biologists weigh prospects for the endangered species' survival

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The door to the club’s offices, in Maitland, on the outskirts of Orlando, is usually locked, because of threats the group says it has received over the years. Most of the 17 employees are women, and each has a set of watermelon-shaped earrings, in a winking nod to Representative Harrington’s comment about environmentalists and the juicy fruit. Graham, who gave up a quest for the Democratic nomination for president this past October and has announced plans to relinquish his Senate seat in January 2005, is no longer directly involved with the club. But Buffett still serves as its co-chairman, along with 75-year-old activist and former state representative Helen Spivey, and raises money for the organization through the sale of T-shirts and other memorabilia promoting his music.


In 2000, the Save the Manatee Club joined in a lawsuit with other advocacy groups such as the Sierra Club, the Humane Society of the United States and the Pegasus Foundation. The suit accused Florida and U.S. agencies of failing to protect manatees under the Endangered Species Act, the Marine Mammal Protection Act and the National Environmental Policy Act. “We saw the potential of a precedent-setting campaign,’’ says Pegasus’s Cynthia Frisch. “If we can’t save an animal like the manatee, then what are the chances of us saving an endangered fly or a flower? This is the leading edge of the animal welfare movement.’’ In 2001, Florida and the federal government settled with the advocacy coalition. The state began drawing up new speed zones for Florida waterways, and the federal government agreed to crack down on new waterfront development permits and to map out new areas where boaters would be restricted or prohibited.


Then came the backlash, ignited by the 2001—higher—aerial manatee population estimate. An angler group, the Coastal Conservation Association of Florida, petitioned the state to reevaluate the manatee’s status, with the aim to remove the manatee from the state’s endangered species list. The move, if successful, would open the door to rolling back some state manatee protections and to removing the animal from the federal endangered species list. State wildlife officials have postponed ruling on the petition until later this year.


Meanwhile, there were 73 documented boat-related manatee deaths in 2003—but down from the 2002 total of 95. The drop may reflect the recent recession, which put a damper on recreational boating. Or it could be that state and federal officials have stepped up enforcement of boat speed limits. Or maybe all the brouhaha has encouraged boaters to slow down. In which case, Florida’s manatee madness may have saved a few sea cows.


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