Miami Wilds Theme Park Slated Near Zoo Miami. It's Also Habitat For The Country's Rarest Bat
Shelved plans for a 28-acre resort-style theme park with shops and a hotel near Zoo Miami and habitat for the nation’s rarest bat are back in play.
On Friday, a Miami-Dade County parks and cultural affairs committee will consider a deal with a hedge fund manager and team of developers pitching the Miami Wilds plan near the last significant tract of pine rockland. The committee’s decision is expected to go before the full county commission in October.
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The plan calls for at least 200 hotel rooms, up to 25,000-square feet of retail, a water park and a parking lot shared with the zoo providing space for 4,200 vehicles and 90 buses.
The scaled-back plan limits development to the zoo’s expansive parking lot. But conservationists say the theme park will likely damage foraging grounds for the vanishing bat.
“So much natural habitat has been destroyed in South Florida that a species like this is relegated to clinging to existence in this urban and suburban habitat,” said Mike Daulton, executive director of Bat Conservation International. “If we want to keep it on the planet we need to look at areas like this that are documented to be valuable.”
The organization began taking a closer look at the bats around the Zoo and across Miami-Dade after a Palm Beach County developer won approval to build a Walmart-anchored shopping center just north of the zoo several years ago. The land had been part of a largely undeveloped former Navy blimp base long been targeted for conservation since most pine rockland has been built over, destroying the habitat for about 90 plants and animals identified as being in danger of disappearing.
Just 5 percent of Florida's pine rockland remains, lost over the years to development and now threatened by sea rise.
Working with the zoo, Bat Conservation erected 16 bat boxes around Miami, including five at Zoo Miami.
“It's not like, you know, 'Field of Dreams.' It's not if you build it, they will come. You can build it and they will not come,” Daulton said. “It's really an expert-driven custom effort to create bat houses that are perfectly suited for the Florida bonnet bat.”
The bat houses around the zoo are now occupied, helping create the second-largest population of bonneted bats ever documented, he said.
According to its application, Miami-Dade County is working with the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service to devise a plan to protect the bats. The agency did not provide answers to questions Wednesday evening.
The Service added the bat to the endangered species list in 2013, but failed to designate critical habitat. In 2018 the Center for Biological Diversity, Tropical Audubon Society and the North American Butterfly Association’s Miami Blue Chapter sued. They settled last year after the Service agreed to finalize the habitat by August. In June, the Service released a proposed plan covering 1.5 million acres in 10 counties in South and Central Florida.
Protecting the zoo parking lot matters because scientists are still trying to understand what the bats need to survive, Daulton said.
"We're not saying all urban and suburban locations in South Florida are off limits. We're not saying parking lots are off limits. We're saying this particular area on the grounds of Zoo Miami is one of only two critically important habitats that this largely urban and suburban bat is relying on," he said. "So that gives us some grave concern about the future of the species. "
Friday’s virtual meeting begins at 2 p.m. To register for the meeting, go to the county's meeting calendar.