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Endangered bonneted bats get critical habitat designations across Florida for the first time

Endangered Florida bonneted bats have been threatened by pesticide use, development and sea level rise.
Bat Conservation International
/
Courtesy
Endangered Florida bonneted bats have been threatened by pesticide use, development and sea level rise.

For the first time, the Florida bonneted bat has been granted critical habitat across the state, following a court-ordered agreement.

It’s one of the largest bats in North America with a wingspan of nearly 2 feet long. The tropical bats also have the lowest echolocation frequency call — so much so that people can actually hear it.

They are native to Central and South Florida, roosting in mature pine, cypress and other habitats, and forage on insects.

The endangered bat isn't found anywhere else on earth, and it's the rarest in the country with fewer than 1,000 still alive.

“The Florida bonneted bat being an incredibly rare bat species is very susceptible to any impacts to its habitat or to its populations,” said Ragan Whitlock, a staff attorney for the Center for Biological Diversity.

The center said development and pesticide use nearly drove the species to extinction before litigation filed by the center compelled the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service to protect the bat in 2013 under the Endangered Species Act.

Conservation groups sued again in 2018 and 2022 to protect the bat’s dwindling habitat, as the species is also being threatened by sea-level rise.

Now, the service granted bonneted bats 1.1 million acres of critical habitat in 13 Florida counties: Charlotte, Collier, DeSoto, Glades, Hardee, Hendry, Highlands, Lee, Miami-Dade, Monroe, Okeechobee, Osceola and Polk.

The largest population of bonneted bats is in Miami-Dade next to Zoo Miami.

“The designation of critical habitat for the Florida bonneted bat is a science-based decision that will help move this endangered species toward recovery,” Mike Oetker, the service's regional director, said in a news release.

“We relied on information provided by multiple agencies, Tribal Nations, experts, organizations, and others to make this decision.”

The service said these identified habitats are expected to also benefit a myriad other species because the protected areas overlap with the ranges of 43 other ESA listed species and critical habitat for 16 other listed species.

Plus, other “at risk” species that do not receive protections under the ESA but that live in these habitats would benefit from the designation. And the service added that this could help with cleaner air and water, flood control and storm surge protection.

"The service recognized the impacts of artificial light on bat populations. It recognized the importance of dark open spaces for these bats to forage," Whitlock said.

"The service did not, however, designate unoccupied critical habitat as critical for the bat moving forward. And as we know with climate change and sea-level rise, the species will move inland. And is it important to protect areas that they could move into as well as the areas in which they are right now."

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Jessica Meszaros