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Top brass gets down and dirty with manatees

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D.C. official in town to get look at operations

By Mike Wright

When you’re a higher-up on the ladder at the Department of the Interior, interacting with wildlife should be second nature.

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But there was Deanna Archuleta on Tuesday morning, gazing at a group of manatees at Three Sisters Springs like a regular tourist.
Archuleta is far from that. She is deputy assistant secretary of water and science, overseeing, among other things, the U.S. Geological Survey, or USGS.
So she played more than giddy visitor Tuesday. Archuleta joined officials and college student volunteers in the capture and health assessment of about a half-dozen manatees from King’s Bay.
“This is incredible!” Archuleta exclaimed as she poured water on a hyperactive manatee’s snout to help its breathing while other workers conducted their testing. “It’s in really good health. It’s young, which explains why it’s kind of frisky.”
She and other USGS officials were in Citrus County for a research site visit to Homosassa and Crystal River. Tuesday morning, two or three dozen workers, volunteers and veterinary students from the University of Florida gathered at King’s Bay Drive peninsula as part of a regular manatee health assessment.
Earlier, Archuleta met with Michael Lusk, manager of the Crystal River National Wildlife Refuge, and received a boat tour of King’s Bay sanctuaries.
Archuleta, a former county commissioner in New Mexico, has worked for the Interior Department for two years. She is the department’s top scientist, overseeing agencies that conduct research on wildlife and the environment.
This is the fourth year the USGS has conducted the wild manatee study in Crystal River, and it does the assessment three times a year. The random testing is to receive a baseline of manatee health, USGS spokeswoman Rachel Pawlitz said.
Teamwork was essential. Volunteers captured manatees with nets; the manatees were transferred to stretchers on other boats where “capture team” workers, including Archuleta, hoisted them gingerly to padded mats under the cover of a tent.
Once there, veterinarians and their assessment teams conducted complete medical exams. The procedure takes about an hour; less if the weather is cold.
John Peterlin, a director with the Friends of the Chassahowitzka National Wildlife Refuge, said the health assessments are vital to the manatee population.
“They use that data to make good, balanced decisions,” Peterlin said. “That’s what we’re doing here today — collecting data.”
Tour boat operator Traci Wood, owner of Nature’s Vacation in Crystal River, also helped out Tuesday.
“It’s a great way to make sure the manatees have the proper health,” she said. “They’re checking the overall health of the animals.”
Archuleta said she returns to Washington, D.C with an up-close understanding of manatees.
“The sheer number of people involved is amazing,” she said, adding with a smile: “I guess it takes a village to raise a manatee!”
Chronicle reporter Mike Wright can be reached at 563-3228 or mwright@chronicleonline.com