The West Indian manatee, or sea cow, should no longer be considered endangered, as it seems that Florida populations are making a comeback. As a result, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service (FWS) proposed to downlist the manatee from an endangered to threatened status under the Endangered Species Act (ESA).

"The manatee is one of the most charismatic and instantly recognizable species," Michael Bean, Principal Deputy Assistant Secretary for Fish and Wildlife and Parks at the Department of the Interior, said in a news release. "It's hard to imagine the waters of Florida without them, but that was the reality we were facing before manatees were listed under the Endangered Species Act. While there is still more work to be done to fully recover manatee populations, their numbers are climbing and the threats to the species' survival are being reduced. Today's proposal is a positive step that recognizes the progress citizens, conservation groups, the State of Florida, the Commonwealth of Puerto Rico and our own Service employees have made working together."

The tubby, grayish-brown marine mammals were originally listed as endangered under the ESA 50 years ago, after being brought to the brink of extinction from overhunting and collisions with boats. When aerial surveys began in 1991, officials counted 1,267 of them in Florida. However, now there are more than 6,300 in Florida alone, and researchers estimate nearly13,000 manatees live in their natural range of the Caribbean and the northern coasts of Colombia, Venezuela and Brazil.

Compared to an endangered listing that claims a species is "currently in danger of extinction throughout all or a significant portion of its range," a threatened listing states the species "is likely to become endangered within the foreseeable future," the FWS explained. The proposal to downlist the species is open to public comments until April 7.

"The manatee's recovery is incredibly encouraging and a great testament to the conservation actions of many," Cindy Dohner, FWS Southeast Regional Director, added in the release. "Today's proposal is not only about recognizing this progress, but it's also about recommitting ourselves to ensuring the manatee's long-term success and recovery." 

Manatees feed on sea grasses and must come above water to breathe every 15 minutes or so. These large marine mammals can grow up to 13 feet in length and weigh up to 1,300 pounds. Generally, their span tends to be about 40 years.

The manatee will remain protected under the Marine Mammal Protection Act, which improves the response rate to strandings or unusual mortality events and requires a permit to hunt, fish, feed or kill manatees. 

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