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How Good Are We at Saving Animals From Extinction?

Manatees are making a comeback and may even get downgraded from “endangered” to “threatened.” What does that mean for conservation in America?

By Francie Diep


(Photo: Wikimedia Commons)

Florida’s underwater gentle giants are making a comeback. Scientists counted a record number of manatees in Florida’s lower St. Johns River basin and the Intracoastal Waterway this week, according to an announcement from Jacksonville University.

Earlier this year, the Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission recorded the most manatees ever for its statewide winter count, which dates back to 1991. Good weather may have helped officials spot more of the aquatic mammals than usual, but even so, the trend suggests manatee populations have improved since they were first placed on the federal endangered species list in 1967. Indeed, federal officials are considering “down-listing” West Indian manatees’ status from “endangered” to “threatened.” Predictably, efforts to down-list have earned the support of developers and the boating industry, the Miami Herald reports, while earning the ire of conservationists.

Manatees aren’t the only animals to face positive changes in their official status. Gray wolves and humpback whales are among those that might receive a down-listing soon. Certain sub-species of Channel Island foxes are also under consideration for down-listing or even de-listing altogether.

Many listed species seem to benefit from the Endangered Species Act.

Although down-listings like the manatees’ generate a lot of buzz, in actuality, America’s endangered plants and animals are very infrequently down- or de-listed. We counted 34 instances of down-listing and 34 instances of de-listing due to recovery in the Fish and Wildlife Service’s reports. Ten species were removed from the endangered species list because they became extinct. Meanwhile, 2,342 plants and animals are currently listed.

A Wyoming representative has argued these numbers mean the Endangered Species Act has failed to protect its listees. An analysis spanning from 1988 to 2002, however, found that the populations of more than half of listed species stayed steady or improved during that time. Thirty-five percent of listees’ populations were in decline after 13 years or more of protection. In other words, although listing doesn’t always help, many listed species seem to benefit from the Endangered Species Act, even if their official status doesn’t change.

Surely any animal’s fate following down- and de-listing will depend a lot on how people treat them afterward. In the manatees’ case, the status of rules protecting their habitat and keeping them from harm by boats will make a big difference. The record for other down-listed animals is mixed. American crocodiles, down-listed in 2007, for example, are now increasing in number, while Utah prairie dogs, down-listed in 1984, are decreasing.