The beloved sea cow has been categorized as endangered since the list was created in 1973, but the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service in 2007 began talking about "upgrading" the West Indian Manatee from endangered to threatened. The lumbering sea mammals have made a comeback from a statewide population of just more than 1,000 some 30 years ago to an estimated 5,000 today.
The boom was attributed to speed restrictions for motorboats in manatee areas and programs to rescue, rehabilitate and release injured and sick manatees.
It was a rosy picture six years ago, when feds first broached the subject of taking the sea cow off the endangered list.
"You can't look at the raw numbers and not see a success here," said wildlife service spokesman Chuck Underwood. "Whether success is sustainable in the long term, I don't know. But the population numbers definitely show improvement in the status of the species and it's nearing the point where reclassification is warranted."
Though the idea was broached six years ago, no action was ever taken to reclassify the species, Underwood said, mainly because of budget constraints and other, higher priority research projects.
Then manatees began to die.
A series of severe freezes shivered the state, particularly one in January 2010 that is blamed for the deaths of 282 manatees that died of cold stress.
Then red tide swept in along the shores of Southwest Florida in September and continued through the spring of this year. The algae bloom happens every year but was worse this year and resulted in the highest number of manatee deaths ever. Biologists say that 272 manatees succumbed to red-tide toxins.
Each year an estimated 80 to 100 manatees die after being hit by boats.
So far this year, about 600 manatees have died of various causes, averaging about 100 a month, more than three a day. In all of 2012, 392 manatee deaths were tallied.
Fish and Wildlife Service researchers are trying to figure out what the mortality rate spike means in terms of manatee long-term population counts. Now, the discussion about reclassifying manatees is on hold indefinitely, Underwood said.
"It should be put on hold," said Katie Tripp, director of science and conservation with the Save the Manatee Club. "It should never have been proposed in the first place."
While the feds call the reclassification "upgrading," manatee advocates call it "down-listing."
Though the populations appear to be robust, all it takes is a severe cold snap or choking red tide or mystery illness to erase the progress, she said and manatees still are on the verge of real trouble.
"Anytime you have a group of events like these," that cause significant damage to a population, she said, "it means a population is not where it needs to be."
The prospect is not all doom and gloom, however. Lowry Park Zoo, which has the only manatee hospital that treats sea cows with red-tide afflictions, is scheduled to release seven manatees Tuesday that had been collected and nursed back to health earlier this year.
Sixteen had been rescued and rehabbed at the David A. Straz Jr. Manatee Hospital at the zoo since the bloom began 10 months ago. All but one survived, zoo officials said.
Some want to see the reclassification go through, including recreational boaters slowed by manatee zones, and property rights advocates who live along manatee rich, but highly regulated areas.
In December, the Pacific Legal Foundation, which represents Save Crystal River, a property rights organization in Citrus County, filed a petition to get the federal government to act on its own recommendations to reclassify the creature. Crystal River is an epicenter for manatee congregations in the winter months as hundreds swim into Kings Bay to enjoy the warm water and spacious sanctuary areas.
"Despite the finding of its own legally required review, which occurred five long years ago, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service has made no effort to initiate the process to 'down-list' the manatee," said Pacific Legal Foundation attorney Alan DeSerio in a statement in December announcing the filing of the petition.
"If the government's own science says a species shouldn't be classified as 'endangered,' regulations need to reflect that fact, or they lose credibility," DeSerio said. "As a practical matter, a down-listing to 'threatened' won't immediately lessen the manatee-related restrictions on landowners, businesses and the Florida economy."
Underwood said that was true: All restrictions would not go away whether manatees are listed as threatened or endangered.
"There would be no change in protections," he said. "The public would notice little or no change. Manatees still would be on the list of protected species."
He said regulations that helped boost the populations would continue to be enforced.
"Protections in place that adequately ensure long term recovery, such as speed zones and other protective measures, are working, or appear to be working for us," he said. "So we would not change those."
He said any reclassification typically takes between a year and 18 months. He maintained the issue is stalled because of budgetary concerns, not necessarily the recent hit on manatee populations, though researchers are taking all that into account.
"There still are a lot of questions about what the recent mortality events mean; the high numbers from cold stress, the mysterious illnesses on the East Coast and red tide," Underwood said. "We don't know. We are in discussion with researchers looking at all of that."
"In the meantime," he said, "we are on hold, indefinitely."