Governor Jeb Bush Receives Failing Grade on Protection of His "Favorite Mammal"

Groups cite recent call to downlist as proof that the Governor fails his own standards set two years ago at the Manatee Summit

(10/17/2002) - TALLAHASSEE, FL. -- Manatee advocates gathered today at the Florida Press Center to issue Governor Jeb Bush a report card on protection of his "favorite mammal.” Standing in front of a pile of 174 stuffed manatees, representing the number killed by watercraft since the Governor's October 2000 Manatee Summit, Rodger Schlickeisen, President of the national environmental organization, Defenders of Wildlife, condemned Bush's performance.

"The Governor receives an 'F' in manatee protection," said Schlickeisen. "Not only
has Governor Bush given meaningless lip service to manatee protection, but he is facilitating the active undermining of protections for this endangered animal by
special interests and agency officials."

Schlickeisen pointed to a large “report card' that revealed grades such as F for enforcement, D- on the development of Manatee Protection Plans, and an F in science.

"The Governor has failed Floridians by allowing their manatees to be killed in record-breaking numbers," said Schlickeisen. "Even by his own standards, which he laid out two years ago at his Manatee Summit, he fails to receive a passing grade."

The Governor has an opportunity to do better and to live up to his promises made at the Manatee Summit, advocates pointed out. One way to do this is for the Governor to prevent the manatee from being downlisted by strengthening the state's listing criteria.

Last week, the state's wildlife agency recommended that the manatee be downlisted from endangered to threatened, despite scientists’ prediction that 50% of the manatee population is likely to be lost over the next 45 years and despite the record-breaking watercraft mortality this year. Eighty-five manatees have been killed by watercraft as of October 11 -- the largest number for an entire year, two month’s shy of year’s end.

Dr. Naomi Rose, marine mammal scientist from The Humane Society of the US, called the move to downlist "irresponsible" and unjustified".

“The number of boats in Florida is growing at a rate that outstrips even the most optimistic guess for the manatee population growth rate,” Rose said. “In a face off between boats and manatees, smart money is on the boats. That's the bottom line.”

Despite scientists' assertion that the annual aerial manatee counts cannot be used to reliably estimate manatee population numbers, members of the marine and boating industry as well as go-fast boater groups have claimed that the manatee population is on the rise.

Dr. Rose calls these claims a "distraction" from the real issue at hand and an attempt to confuse the public.

“The manatee population cannot sustain the mortality it has been experiencing each year from both human and natural causes. It’s very simple – more manatees are dying each year than are being born.”

Not only has the Governor failed to "make the grade," but advocates also point to the Governor's behind-the-scenes maneuvers to get the Federal government to back off on its protections.

Susannah Lindberg, Florida Campaign Director for The Wildlife Advocacy Project, presented a letter from Governor Bush to the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service as proof positive of interference by Bush.

"This letter shows clear evidence of the Governor undermining manatee protections," said Lindberg. "By urging the Federal government to violate its own court-ordered settlement on manatee protection, Jeb Bush has effectively added to the growing death toll of manatees."

In the letter, dated May 29, 2001, Governor Bush claims success in "reversing a three-year trend of increasing manatee deaths due to watercraft."

"This letter indicates that the Governor is clearly measuring his success based on the watercraft mortality rate," says Lindberg. "He cannot hide from the fact that under his watch, more manatees have died from watercraft than ever before."

That's what makes the latest move to downlist so outrageous, says Dr. Rose.

"By allowing the wildlife agency to recommend downlisting and by allowing the state to implement such weak listing criteria, the Governor is trying to convince the public that 'failure' really means 'success'," Dr. Rose said.

That's like changing the grade on your report card to fool your mother, said Schlickeisen.

"If the Governor wants to improve his grade, he needs to protect the manatee,” said
Schlickeisen. "He needs to provide strong protections, like those laid out at the
Manatee Summit, not just lip service."

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Defenders of Wildlife is a leading non-profit conservation organization recognized as one of the nation's most progressive advocates for wildlife and its habitat. With more than 430,000 members and supporters - 100,000 of whom are in California - Defenders of Wildlife is an effective leader on endangered species issues. To stay current on hot topics in wildlife conservation, please visit www.defenders.org.

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Contact(s):

Brad DeVries, Defenders of Wildlife, (202) 682-9400
Susannah Lindberg, The Wildlife Advocacy Project, (805) 322-6659
Dr. Naomi Rose, Humane Society of the United States, (202) 452-1100

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