Sad record was set in Florida last year: the most manatee deaths—429—ever in state waters. And there’s been even more bad news going into the new year: Because of unusually cold temperatures, more than 300 manatees died in the first six weeks of 2010. At the same time, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service (FWS) announced in January that new critical habitat protections for the species are warranted but that funding limitations will prevent the agency from acting on that need.

“Last year’s high death rate confirms that the Florida manatee needs help now,” says Elizabeth Fleming, Florida representative for Defenders of Wildlife. “FWS has acknowledged this need, and now we need to make sure it translates into actual protections.”

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Manatees are threatened by coastal development, propeller scarring, dams, pollution and marine debris, including derelict fishing gear. Last year’s death toll included 56 from cold-related stress and 97 from watercraft run-ins, while 114 newborns simply didn’t survive.

“The death rate for this federally endangered species is unsustainable, according to FWS’s own statistics,” says Fleming.

FWS’s recent decision came in response to a petition to revise the manatee’s critical habitat filed by Defenders of Wildlife and other conservation groups. According to the petition, revised habitat protections are needed based on a vast body of science developed over the past three decades, which has better identified the areas essential to the survival and recovery of manatees.

Defenders at Work 
Find out how Defenders is working to save endangered manatees.

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