Monday, February 7, 2011

Officials tour manatee sites

Officials tour manatee sites

Argument's on both sides of the debate sure seem logical.

The idea of touching an endangered species in the wild is odd. After all, most people don’t pet a caribou.

Yet on many days, especially winter, that’s exactly what happens in Three Sisters Springs. Snorkelers, swimmers and kayakers get up close encounters with manatees that huddle in the warm 72-degree water.

On the other hand, if manatees are bothered by the attention, why don’t they just swim away?

Michael Lusk, manager of the Chassahowitzka National Wildlife Refuge Complex, is tasked with developing a plan for the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service that could limit access to the springs or interaction between humans and manatees.

“We need to make some very hard decisions in gray areas,” Lusk acknowledged.

That’s where people like Deanna Archuleta and Bob Bonde come in.

Both are scientists with the U.S. Geological Survey, or USGS, and it is their studies of manatees that could sway Lusk’s decisions on rules one way or another.

“We very much need the science because what we do is affecting real people and real people’s lives,” Lusk said.

Archuleta oversees the USGS as deputy assistant secretary of water and science for the Department of the Interior. Bonde heads the USGS Florida Integrated Science Center in Gainesville.

They were in Crystal River last week for a research site visit and to participate in a manatee capture and health assessment. Bonde oversaw the manatee exercise that included experts and volunteers from the USGS and University of Florida.

Lusk accompanied Archuleta on a site visit to the Three Sisters Springs property, now owned by the city of Crystal River and managed by wildlife service. They then went by boat throughout King’s Bay, with Lusk pointing out manatee sanctuary sites.

Archuleta, who had never seen a manatee, was enthralled.

Lusk explained the delicate balance he faces at Three Sisters: Developing a rule that protects manatees from harassment while also giving the public access to the unique encounter that only Crystal River offers.

Archuleta said she could appreciate that, which made the USGS’s studies of manatees that more important.

“We have to find the triggers that are risks to the species,” she said. “We have trained scientists with amazing backgrounds. They have such depth of knowledge.”

Archuleta said her scientists take no sides in the manatee-interaction debate while conducting research.
“They’re independent,” she said. “We make sure we have a divide between science and management.”
Expert: Keep it simple for manatees
It was quite the scene Tuesday morning.

Researchers in manatee science and veterinary students from the University of Florida, plus other volunteers, converged on a peninsula off King’s Bay Drive. Their goal was to capture a half-dozen manatees — one at a time — and bring them ashore for a thorough checkup before being released.
They worked quickly and efficiently, with the goal of keeping each manatee on land no more than an hour.

Robert K. Bonde, a research biologist for the USGS who has studied manatees for 32 years, oversaw the operation.
“It’s like a MASH unit,” he said.
He said these manatee health assessments occur three times a year at Crystal River so that researchers can compare baseline data from year to year and spot change patterns.
Bonde has learned over the years to profile manatees and he especially loves the research obtained in Crystal River.

“This is a jewel. It’s a prime place for manatees,” he said. “It doesn’t get any better than here.”
During an interview, he provided two significant observations
One is that older manatees, those with boat-propeller scars on their backs for example, tend to stay in the protected sanctuaries.

Younger generations of manatees, who do not have the same history with humans as their elders, are more likely to veer from the sanctuaries to interact with swimmers.
The other is that data is inconclusive whether human interaction is hazardous to manatees or not.
“Manatees choose to come out and interact,” he said.

Manatees that avoid cold water for the warm springs in winter have learned that human interaction is part of the lifestyle. They do not flee because they know there is nowhere else to go.
“They’re like puppy dogs. They like the attention,” he said.

However, swimmers who try the same thing during the summer, when manatees are in the Gulf of Mexico, will find a much different reaction. Manatees are not the same cuddly critters when they know they’re not limited to a small area of warm water, he said.
“They don’t expect you to get in the water out in their world, but they will here,” Bonde said.
Bonde acknowledged, however, that the issue is stickier when large numbers of manatees and swimmers gather at the same time in a cramped space, such as Three Sisters Springs.
“That’s the 64 million dollar question,” he said.

“They are a creature of habit,” Bonde added. “They don’t like change. You keep it mundane for them, they’re happy.”

Article By Mike Wright

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