But now the lovable, slow-moving sea mammal may find itself unprotected by the feds, or at least upgraded, or reclassified, to simply "threatened" instead of endangered. That decision won't come for at least another year, as federal wildlife officials will take 12 months to review the recovery and population numbers of West Indian Manatee and its two subspecies, the Florida manatee and Antillean manatee.
Regardless of the time frame, conservationists are concerned about any possibility of less stringent manatee protections.
"Essentially all of the elements of their habitat are at really high risk going forward in the future," said Patrick Rose, executive director of the Save the Manatee Club. "If you look at the warm water that the manatees depend on in the winter time, whether it's now from the power plants or from the natural springs, there's no security in that."
Florida wildlife officials say manatee numbers are at least stable and in some places up; but taking an accurate count of the mammal, which only emerges momentarily for air, is difficult. Because the hefty creatures are so slow, they're often hit by boats.
FWS spokesman Chuck Underwood said a reclassification wouldn't undermine current protections.
"Reclassifying from endangered to threatened really focuses more on where they stand towards recovery," Underwood said. "They either lean closer to extinction or closer to being recovered. So threatened would be a better status to be."
But the local group Save Crystal River, whose petition and lawsuit has forced the FWS to act, is adamant that the manatees classification reflect science and reality -- not an emotional attachment to a creature they say is now thriving.
"Our lawsuit was necessary because environmental policy has to be kept honest," argued Christina Martin, an attorney that represents Save Crystal River, in a recent blog post. "Changing the manatee's status from endangered to threatened won't change the protections for the species."
"But not changing that status -- when the science says it should be changed -- will undermine the credibility of environmental oversight, and that's bad news for all species and all environmental concerns," Martin added.
Before officials with FWS embark on their year-long fact finding mission, there will be a 90 day comment period, so citizens can voice their concerns or opinions on the prospective of the manatee being reclassified.
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