For more than a year, a team of seven scientists studied the Florida manatee population. Finally they crafted a recommendation to the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service about what criteria should be used in deciding when manatees can be taken off the endangered species list.
But when federal wildlife officials unveiled their latest plan for protecting the manatee this month, the scientists discovered their careful work had been tossed aside. Instead, federal officials substituted their own goals for downgrading the manatees' protected status, a move they said could begin in 2003.
Their plan establishes criteria that are "not as tough as we recommended," said biologist Bruce Ackerman of the Florida Marine Research Institute in St. Petersburg, who served on the science panel.
"Everyone is saying they need science-based criteria," said St. Petersburg marine biologist James "Buddy" Powell. "They need to stick to that. ... If you don't have the scientific community behind you, then you're kind of climbing out on a limb."
Although he praised the panel as "the world's best scientists," the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service official in charge of the plan said the agency tossed out the recommendations so it would have "a little bit more flexibility" in its decisions.
"We have an obligation to use the best science," said Dave Hankla, field supervisor for the Fish and Wildlife Service in Jacksonville, Fla. "We got recommendations from our scientists and I think what we wrote is more than adequate."
However, environmental groups have seized on the weaker goals as evidence the agency succumbed to political pressure to weaken manatee protections.
"It looks like there's some political science at work in the Fish and Wildlife Service ... instead of science science," contended Brock Evans, executive director of the Endangered Species Coalition.
Patti Thompson of the Save the Manatee Club said the numbers federal officials used "were pulled out of thin air, to put it politely."
Manatee experts who were not on the science panel criticized the agency's disregard of scientific advice. David Laist of the U.S. Marine Mammal Commission, which advises Congress, called the new plan "very lax."
And Howard University professor Daryl Domning, who edits a newsletter for manatee experts, suggested federal officials tailored the lower standards to fit the current population, thus speeding along the process of taking manatees off the endangered list.
But Hankla laughed at that accusation and said, "No one should hold their breath waiting for us to reclassify the manatee in 2003."
Manatees have been on the endangered list for 30 years, but nobody knows how many there are. They're hard to spot even when not submerged in murky water. Yet during the past decade, during winter cold snaps, researchers have flown over the state's waterways to count the manatees holed up in warm springs and power plant outfalls. In the 1990s, they never counted more than 2,600.
If more than 10 percent of the population dies off annually, biologists say, the species is headed for extinction. Every year the death rate has approached or exceeded 10 percent, with about a third of the deaths caused by humans, particularly boat collisions.
Last year, a coalition of environmental groups concerned about manatees sued state and federal wildlife agencies. Settlements of those suits called for tighter regulations on boating and development, as well as creating a new plan for saving the manatee.
But the environmental groups' attorney, Eric Glitzenstein, said the new plan's disregard for what the scientists recommended violates "both the letter and spirit of the agreement."
This year, biologists counted 3,276 manatees statewide. The combination of the higher count and the prospect of tighter regulations has created a backlash among boating groups, who have begun openly advocating taking the manatee off the endangered list. One sport-fishing group paid a biologist $10,000 for a report that argued that the manatee population is "growing at a healthy rate."