Florida's gentle manatees are the focus of sharp debate over plans to downgrade their protective status from "endangered" to "threatened."
State wildlife officials say their plan reflects the aquatic mammal's successful comeback from the brink of extinction.
But environmentalists and other critics say it is all a charade aimed at placating boaters and pro-development industry groups that complain about what they view as excessive regulations to protect the manatee and other wildlife.
The downgrade would not immediately reduce protections for the manatee. But the move could help boaters and residents fight slow-speed zones, limits on dock building, and other restrictions.
The key issue is how well manatees are doing.
"People are being tricked into believing that these species are doing better than they are," says Patrick Rose, executive director of the Save the Manatee Club. Mr. Rose says rather than working toward establishing a sustainable breeding population of manatees, the state has simply rewritten its regulations to make it harder for struggling wildlife to qualify for the highest level of state protection. "Sea turtles will be next," he says.
Officials with the state's Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission dispute the charge that they are favoring development and boating interests at the expense of manatees.
"The recovery of the manatee is pretty well established to the point that threatened is the proper classification," says Henry Cabbage, a commission spokesman. "This is a success story. It is something we ought to be celebrating."
Despite the state move, the federal government still lists the manatee as endangered.