The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service plans to designate an area three times the size of Lake Okeechobee as critical habitat for Florida’s rare bonneted bat.
The habitat would be scattered across 10 counties and mark the final chapter in a long fight to protect a bat that once commonly swooped across South Florida’s night skies. The Service added the bat to the endangered species list in 2013, after being sued by conservation groups, but failed to define protected habitat, missing a one-year deadline. In 2018, the Center for Biological Conservation and Tropical Audubon sued again.
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“The agency said it didn't have enough information,” said Jaclyn Lopez, a senior attorney for the center. “We finally got to the point where we said, hey, we've got to move on this.”
The designation does not affect private landowners. But it does mean that activities on federal land, or projects within the habitat that involve federal money, will have to consider the bat. That might include seismic oil exploration in the Big Cypress National Preserve, Lopez said.
“For me and you, we're not going to notice anything different in the ecosystem, in the landscape when we go on hikes in Everglades National Park,” she said. “There's not going to be a sign up that says, tread carefully, this is bat habitat. It's an additional, almost invisible layer of protection that applies to federal agencies that fund or carry out activities that may have an effect on the bats habitat.”
The bats' plight gained attention after a Palm Beach County developer proposed building a Walmart-anchored shopping center on pine rockland near Zoo Miami. The forest was one of the largest intact tracts outside Everglades National Park where bats had been documented. Critics staged protests and circulated petitions. The center, along with Audubon and others, sued to stop the project, but lost.
The trumpet-eared bat, with a face that looks more like a chihuahua than a bat, can gobble up huge amounts of insects as it cruises high above trees. It’s been documented flying as far as 100 miles on a single night.
Bats use high-frequency calls to locate prey and orient themselves. Most are too high to be heard by humans, but the bonneted bat is one of the few that can be heard. The bats forage over large open areas, like wetlands, but roost in tall trees like pines and royal palms. Like many other native species, most of its habitat got built over by development.
By the time the Service added the bat to the endangered species lists, estimates put the number between a few thousand and a few hundred.
The proposed designation is open to public comment through Aug. 10. Comments can be submitted online here or in writing at: Attention FWS-R4-ES-2019-0106, U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, MS: BPHC, 5275 Leesburg Pike, Falls Church, VA 22041-3803.