Pointing to increased numbers of manatees and improved habitat, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service said Thursday it wants to change the status of the sea cows from endangered to threatened.
The agency said in a news release that Florida has an estimated 6,300 manatees, up from 1,267 when aerial surveys began in 1991.
Under the federal Endangered Species Act, endangered animals are considered in danger of extinction, while threatened animals are likely to become endangered in the "foreseeable future," the news release said.
"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 U.S. Department of the Interior, said in a prepared statement.
"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."
The agency said manatee-protection measures would remain in place. But U.S. Rep. Vern Buchanan, R-Fla., sent a letter Thursday to the Fish and Wildlife Service asking it to withdraw the proposed status change, calling the move "misguided and premature" and saying manatees face threats such as collisions with boats, habitat loss and red tide.
"Manatees have become an iconic symbol for the wilderness and beauty of Florida,'' Buchanan wrote. "They are an engine in our economy even as they are a restorative presence in our tranquil waters. We must do everything possible to protect this treasured species."
The public will be able to submit information about the proposal during a 90-day comment period, which will start when the proposed change is published Friday. The agency is expected to make a final decision after the comment period.