ST. PETERSBURG, Fla.— Following a court-ordered agreement, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service on Monday proposed protecting nearly 1.2 million acres of critical habitat for the endangered Florida bonneted bat. The native bat faces devastating habitat loss from climate change and urban sprawl.
“While I’m happy that the Fish and Wildlife Service is moving to protect more than 1 million acres of critical habitat for the Florida bonneted bat, it has excluded crucial areas threatened by immediate development,” said Ragan Whitlock, a Florida-based attorney at the Center. “We hope the Service will revise the final designation to accurately reflect all the areas these charming bats need to recover.”
Although the proposal acknowledges the bats and their habitat are threatened by climate change and sea-level rise, the Service did not extend badly needed protections for unoccupied critical habitat.
The proposal also excludes “humanmade structures” in areas known to be used by the bat, which is contrary to available science showing that several bat populations depend on bat boxes and urban foraging areas to survive.
“While we welcome the Service’s reproposed critical habitat designation, we are surprised by some of their proposed limitations to area that have suffered anthropogenic disturbances,” said Dennis Olle, president of the Miami Blue Chapter of the North American Butterfly Association. “Specifically, we are disappointed by the exclusion of certain disturbed or otherwise human-modified areas that are clearly important to the survival of the Florida bonneted bat. The Service’s failure to understand this shows a surprising lack of reliance on good science.”
“We are glad to see that the Service has finally issued the proposed critical habitat and included additional areas where we know the bat resides, like the Corkscrew and Kissimmee units,” said Lauren Jonaitis, conservation director of Tropical Audubon Society. “However, we still have major concerns that the Service did not include unoccupied critical habitat to bolster against habitat loss from sea level rise and range shifts as climate changes.”
“Having already undergone major revisions we were expecting a more comprehensive and accurate proposal from the Fish and Wildlife Service that truly represents all the habitat the Florida bonneted bat is dependent on for its survival,” said Jon Flanders, Ph.D., director of endangered species interventions at Bat Conservation International. “Completely dismissing the importance of urban-based populations and their habitat needs is a massive setback for the recovery of the species.”
Development and pesticide use nearly drove Florida bonneted bats extinct before litigation filed by the Center compelled the Service to protect the bat in 2013 under the Endangered Species Act. Conservation groups sued again in 2018 and then once more this year to secure habitat safeguards for the species.
Animals with federally protected critical habitat are more than twice as likely to be moving toward recovery than species without such protections. Federal agencies that fund or permit projects in critical habitat are required to consult with the Service to ensure this habitat is not harmed or destroyed by their actions.
Named for the broad ears that hang over their foreheads, bonneted bats are the largest of Florida’s 13 bat species, and the second largest in North America. The bats roost in old tree cavities and artificial structures and forage for insects over dark open spaces. They also use one of the lowest-frequency echolocation calls of all bats, so some people are actually able to hear the bonneted bats’ bird-like chirps as they hunt for insects.
Florida bonneted bats have one of the smallest ranges of any bat species. They live only in South Florida — an area that’s highly susceptible to rising sea levels, impacts by major storms, and development. Projections indicate that sea levels will rise between 3 and 6 feet within much of the bats’ habitat over the course of this century.
This week’s Fish and Wildlife Service proposal follows a lawsuit filed by the Center for Biological Diversity, Tropical Audubon Society, and the Miami Blue Chapter of the North American Butterfly Association.