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US Says Manatee Should Lose Endangered Species Status

The West Indian manatee, or sea cow, has rebounded in population, particularly in Florida, officials said.

The West Indian manatee, or sea cow, should no longer be considered an endangered species because its population has rebounded, particularly in Florida, US officials said Thursday.

The tubby, grayish brown marine mammals were listed as endangered almost 50 years ago, after being killed mainly due to overhunting and collisions with boats.

Make Way For Manatees Month: Photos

"The manatee's recovery is incredibly encouraging and a great testament to the conservation actions of many," said Cindy Dohner, the Fish and Wildlife Service's southeast regional director.

When aerial surveys began in 1991, officials counted 1,267 of them in Florida, the US Fish and Wildlife Service said.

Now there are more than 6,300 in Florida alone, and the entire population is estimated at 13,000 manatees in its range which includes the Caribbean and the northern coasts of Colombia, Venezuela and Brazil.

Record Number Of Manatees Seen In Florida Count

The Fish and Wildlife Service said "significant improvements in its population and habitat conditions and reductions in direct threats" have helped propel the population in Florida 500 percent higher in 25 years.

Therefore, the agency has proposed downgrading the underwater grass-eaters to "threatened."

Under federal law, an endangered species is "currently in danger of extinction throughout all or a significant portion of its range."

A threatened species "is likely to become endangered within the foreseeable future," the FWS said.

The proposal is open to public comments until April 7.

Sea Monsters Real And Imagined: Photos

Manatees feed on sea grasses and must come above water to breathe every 15 minutes or so.

They can reach 13 feet (four meters) in length and weigh up to 1,300 pounds (600 kilograms).

Their lifespan tends to be about 40 years.

Some conservation groups, such as the Save The Manatee Club, oppose the idea of downgrading the creatures' status because they say many threats still remain, and death counts have been high in recent years.

From 2010-2013, 2,441 manatees died in Florida waters, Save the Manatee Club said.

November is Manatee Awareness Month, proclaimed so each year by the state of Florida, whose waters are a winter home to the state's official marine mammal. Florida and the manatee go hand in hand. In November, manatees start returning to the warmer water refuges in the state. They're a subtropical species, and they can't handle exposure of any duration to water temperatures below 68 degrees F. In honor of the month of the manatee, let's take a look at pictures of the slow-swimming mammal in action.

Manatee Mystery: Why Can't They Avoid Speedboats?

Also known as a "seacow," the manatee is an air-breathing herbivore that's listed as a federally endangered species.

PHOTOS: Mammals of the Sea

Here the Florida Keys National Marine Sanctuary is visited by several marine mammal species, including the endangered West Indian manatee (

Trichechus manatus

).

Mysterious Die-offs in Florida Lagoon

There are many seasonal manatee zones in Florida that go into effect beginning in early November. Boaters are asked to pay close attention to posted signs indicating they should slow down in such waters.

Red Tide Slaughtering Florida Manatees

When a manatee calf is born, the mother nurses it for about one to two years. The bond between mom and calf is strong during the nursing phase. The mother teaches the calf how to find food and warm water and how to locate migration routes.

Manatees are slow swimmers because they have no natural predators and they're herbivores. They don't have much evolutionary need to swim fast when chasing prey or being chased by predators.

Adorable Animals You Just Want to Kiss: Photos

The typical adult manatee is just under 10 feet long and weighs between 800 and 1,200 pounds.

PHOTOS: 30 Days of the Ocean

A mom and baby manatee swim in a canal in St. Petersburg, Fla.

Manatees feed on various submerged, emergent, and floating plants. Key feeding areas for them include seagrass beds and freshwater, submerged aquatic vegetation.

The federal Marine Mammal Protection Act of 1972 and the Endangered Species Act of 1973 are the manatee's key pieces of protective legislation. The Florida Manatee Sanctuary Act of 1978, meanwhile, gives added protection to the creature in that state.