John Raoux  /  AP
Manatees swim at Blue Springs State Park in Orange City, Fla.
updated 4/9/2007 6:08:53 PM ET 2007-04-09T22:08:53

The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service on Monday recommended upgrading the manatee’s status from endangered to threatened, a move that indicates the animal has rebounded from the brink of extinction.

The manatee remains protected under the federal Endangered Species Act, making it illegal to harass, poach or kill the animals.

The Fish and Wildlife service released its five-year review of manatee populations in Florida and Puerto Rico and found that the species no longer fits the criteria to be deemed endangered.

Federal endangered status means an animal is at immediate risk of extinction. Threatened status means a species could become endangered in the future if protections are not maintained.

“Based on the science it is clear that manatees are no longer facing extinction in all or a significant portion of its range,” Dave Hankla, field supervisor for the Fish and Wildlife Service’s Jacksonville office, said in a statement. “This is an opportunity for all of our manatee partners to celebrate a conservation success milestone.”

This year’s annual manatee census recorded 2,812 of the animals, also known as sea cows, in Florida water. In 1991 — the survey’s first year — 1,267 manatees were counted in the state.

Patrick Rose, executive director of the Save the Manatee Club, said a classification switch could mean changes in boating and development restrictions that were established to protect manatees.

“This is not the time to be moving to say that they’re going to be downlisting (the manatees) and then dilute the protection for them,” Rose said.

The Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission voted last year to change the manatee’s status from endangered to threatened.

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