It’s manatee vs. military in pending habitat ruling

Manatees may rank lower than traditional military menaces like torpedoes or air-to-sea missiles. But a proposal to protect additional habitat for the deceptively gentle, seagrass-munching creatures could, according to the U.S. Navy, end up reducing habitat for destroyers, aircraft carriers and nuclear submarines.

The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service soon will make a decision on whether to expand what’s called critical habitat for the manatee in Florida and southern Georgia, in response to a petition from several environmental groups.

The coastlines of these states bristle with naval installations, such as the historic Pensacola Naval Air Station, where World War II aviators trained; Kings Bay in southern Georgia, home to nuclear-armed Ohio-class submarines; and the South Florida Ocean Testing Facility in Dania Beach, where the Navy operates an undersea range to determine ships’ acoustical signatures.

Although the Navy doesn’t object in principal to an increase in protected areas -- and indeed points out the many measures it takes to prevent harm to endangered species -- it says that an overly broad expansion could have “significant impacts” on Navy operations.

“Manatees and their habitats overlap Navy training and operation areas through the Southeast,” said a letter from C.R. Destafney, the Navy’s regional environmental program director. “Navy’s training involves activities necessary to maintain proficiency in mission-essential areas such as mine warfare, strike warfare, electronic combat and maritime security.”

Among the military’s concerns are security arrangements for Ohio-class submarines entering and exiting Kings Bay. The Navy does not want protections for a marine mammal, no matter how lovable, to compromise security arrangements for submarines approaching shore armed with nuclear weapons.

Spokesman Steve Strickland said that the Navy works hard to leave a minimal environmental footprint. For example, he said, the Navy conducts aerial surveys of endangered right whales off north Florida in order to alert military ships of their whereabouts.

“Certainly the Navy coexists with various endangered species,” he said. “We do all kinds of things to help minimize the impact.”

The habitat expansion proposal came in a 2008 petition from the Center for Biological Diversity, Defenders of Wildlife, Save the Manatee Club and Wildlife Advocacy Project.

These groups argued that the currently designated critical habitat, drawn up in 1976, was outdated. Since then, they said, a skyrocketing population has brought more boats and waterfront development.

A critical habitat designation would not prohibit construction or other activities. But it would require the wildlife service to review federal activities or decisions that could affect the manatees’ habitat, such as permitting development, oil drilling, boating or shipping.

Katie Tripp, science and conservation director of the Save the Manatee Club, said that there may be ways the Navy could alter operations to protect manatees without any impact on operations or training.

“In the past, manatees have not kept the Navy from doing what they need to do,” she said. “In this state, endangered species and the military have coexisted.”

The petition calls for the protection of dozens of natural springs, seagrass beds, travel corridors and coastlines throughout manatee habitat.

Rules to protect manatees have irritated boaters and the marine construction industry for years, and the proposal could face a fight if it moves forward.

Chuck Underwood, spokesman for the Fish and Wildlife Service, said that any increase in critical habitat would almost certainly be a fraction of the habitat proposed by the wildlife groups.

He downplayed the significance of expanding the species’ critical habitat, saying any changes would simply reinforce protections already in place. Of the Navy’s comments, he said, “We understand they have concerns, and they’re legitimate concerns.”