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Once Rare Nectar-Feeding Bat Removed From U.S. Endangered Species List

The move is a first for bat species

(USFWS/Wiki CC)
smithsonian.com

Thirty years ago, the future looked grim for the lesser long-nosed bat. In 1988, with a population of less than 1,000 and only 14 known roosts, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service listed it as endangered.

But things are looking up for the bat. As the agency announced this week in a press release, the bat has recovered enough to be removed from the list. Thanks to binational efforts over the last several decades, there are now around 200,000 lesser long-nosed bats at 75 roosts in the American Southwest and Mexico. It is the first bat ever removed from the United States' Endangered Species List due to population recovery.

“The science clearly shows threats to the bat have been eliminated or reduced to the point that the bat has recovered,” says Amy Lueders, the agency’s service southwest regional director, in a statement.

The nectar-feeding bat’s recovery is also good news for the environment. It’s an important pollinator and seed disperser of saguaros in the Sonoran Desert and tequila-producing agave in central Mexico. Though some populations of the bat migrate between the United States and Mexico, others stay in Mexico year-round. The creatures contribute to healthy habitats in both countries.

Decades ago, several factors contributed to species’ dwindling populations. As Michael Greshko reports for National Geographic, vandals as well as drug cartels and human traffickers operating near the border often disturbed the bat’s precious habitat. Mexico’s efforts to curb vampire bats due to rabies threats also unintentionally impacted the lesser long-nosed bat.

But the bat’s dwindling population was a call to arms. Biologists, researchers, tequila producers and even Arizona residents got to work to help the population bounce back.

As Michael Greshko reports, U.S. and Mexican agencies helped protect the bat’s food source, like agaves and saguaro. They also cracked down on human interference to protect its foraging zones. Arizona residents began gathering data on the bats’ use of hummingbird feeders to help biologists better understand their migration patterns. Some residents also helped track roosting sites by capturing bats to attach radio transmitters.

Tequila producers in Mexico played another important role. As Greshko explains, tequila makers have to harvest the agave before it flowers to ensure the plant’s sugars are still intact. But bats—the plant’s natural pollinators—can’t feed on flowerless agave.

Rodrigo Medellín, a professor of ecology the University of Mexico, worked to solve this problem with a “bat-friendly” tequila certification program. Producers can earn the label by allowing some of their agave plants to flower, providing food for the bats.

In 2015, Mexico removed the bat from its endangered list, and in early 2017, the U.S. first announced it planned to do the same.

It isn’t always good news when animals are removed from protected species’ list. Loss of protections can slow recovery efforts. For example, earlier this year environmental groups strongly opposed a proposal to de-list the Canada lynx, The Washington Post’s Darryl Fears reported at the time. The 2017 announcement for delisting Yellowstone grizzly bears met similar opposition.

For the most part, however, the news of the lesser long-nosed bat delisting seems to be positive. In a statement, Bat Conservation International (BCI) Chief Scientist Winifred Frick calls it a success story.

“The story of the lesser long-nosed bat shows that conservation and science can work together to provide species the chance to recover and persist," she says. "Scientists and conservation groups in both Mexico and the U.S. have worked together over the years toward recovering these bats, it's an exciting success story for collaborative conservation efforts and the Endangered Species Act."

Delisting doesn’t mean conversation efforts are over. The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service says it will soon release a draft post-removal monitoring plan.

Correction, April 20, 2018: An earlier version of this story referred to the wrong gender pronoun to identify chief scientist Winifred Frick. The piece has been updated.

About Julissa Treviño

Julissa Treviño is a writer and journalist based in Texas. She has written for Columbia Journalism Review, BBC Future, The Dallas Morning News, Racked, CityLab and Pacific Standard.

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