Fish and Wildlife Service Sued Over Manatee Protection Inaction

The United States Fish and Wildlife Service (FWS) was sued by the Center for Biological Diversity, Defenders of Wildlife, and Save the Manatee Club on Tuesday in District of Columbia District Court. The complaint for declaratory and injunctive relief comes as a result of the agency’s alleged inaction on the revision of the Florida manatee critical habitat designation. Specifically, the plaintiffs are challenging “the unlawfully withheld and/or unreasonably delayed actions by the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service in failing to take final action” on the plaintiff’s petition for a rule to revise critical habitat for the Florida manatee.

The petition was filed by the plaintiffs in late 2008, and the defendant has yet to finalize a regulation that will revise the designated critical habitat area for the Florida manatee, per the plaintiff.

In January 2010, the complaint explained, the defendant found that a revision of the critical habitat designation for the Florida manatee was warranted in order to protect the animal. Despite this, no final action has been taken in relation to the finding. This critical habitat designation is “one of the essential mechanisms embodied in the Endangered Species Act (ESA) for ensuring the survival and effectuating the recovery of imperiled species such as the Florida manatee.”

Any species listed under the Endangered Species Act are required to receive several crucial protections, one of which is the guaranteed safeguarding of its critical habitat. If an interested party is displeased with FWS ESA policy, the APA (Administrative Procedure Act) provides that they can petition the agency for “rulemaking to revise designated critical habitat.” The FWS is required to make a judgment on the petition within 90 days of receiving the petition.

The Florida manatee was identified as an endangered species first in 1967. In 1976, the defendant identified a designated critical habitat for the animal. Since then, the complaint explains that the defendant and Congress have fundamentally changed the meaning of critical habitat, which led to the defendant’s 2010 declaration that a revision of the Florida manatee’s designated critical habitat was warranted. Despite this declaration by the defendant, they have “never undertaken the rulemaking process required to implement” the “long-overdue revision.” The plaintiffs contend that there is also no indication that FWS will move to revise the designated critical habitat in the near future.

Last year alone, the complaint said, it was estimated that 13% of the total Florida manatee population died as a result of cold-related stress, starvation, boat strikes, and toxic red tides. FWS is legally obligated to protect endangered species, yet the plaintiffs assert that they have continually failed to do so in the case of the Florida manatee. Specifically, FWS’s “protracted failures to propose and finalize a regulation to revise critical habitat in response to Plaintiffs’ 2008 Petition constitute agency actions unlawfully withheld and unreasonably delayed in violation of the ESA and APA.”

The purported inaction by the FWS has led the plaintiffs to file claims for multiple ESA and APA violations. The plaintiffs are seeking favorable judgment on these violations, injunctions requiring the defendant to implement the desired rule regarding the designated critical habitat of the Florida manatee, litigation fees, and any other relief deemed proper by the Court.

The plaintiffs are represented by their own legal counsel as well as the Law Offices of F. Bryan Brice, Jr.