According to preliminary results from the state's Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission, 6,620 manatees have been recorded in Florida's waters such as lagoons, springs, and canals. That's up from between 100 to 180 estimated in 2014.
As conflicts have increased between panthers and humans, including a record 34 roadkill panthers previous year and increasing reports of panthers killing cattle, the number of panthers has become an increasingly contentious issue. The one-day high for manatees seen at the park during a cold spell was 458.
"The relatively high counts we have seen for the past three years underscore the importance of warm water habitat to manatees in Florida", said Gil McRae, head of the FWC's Fish and Wildlife Research Institute in a release. That helped a team of 15 observers from 10 statewide organizations to spot manatees during this year's count.
This year is also the first time west coast numbers have hurdled over 3,000. "But I'm not going to celebrate some artificial victory", said Katie Tripp, who sits as science and conservation director at Save the Manatee Club.
"The FWC will continue to work diligently with our many partners to ensure the long-term viability of (manatee) habitats and the well-being of the manatee population", he said. A warming trend with sunny, windless conditions following cold weather increases the likelihood that manatees will be resting at the water's surface, where they can easily be spotted.
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It was the third straight year that population estimates glowed. That raises concern for state wildlife officials and manatee advocates. "Therefore, for management agencies, there's more flexibility when dealing with a threatened species than there is for an endangered species".
The annual count comes as the US Fish and Wildlife Service mulls a final decision on the removal of the West Indian manatee from the endangered species list and a reclassification as a threatened species.
"All comments and information received during the public comment [phase] are given consideration during the status review", Charles Underwood, spokesman for the service's North Florida Ecological Services Office, tells the Monitor via email.
Some in the state have questioned the effectiveness of boating speed zones meant to protect the species.
This story is developing, check back for details.