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Conservation groups demand protection for Florida bat facing extinction

The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service agreed to designate critical habitat in 2020 for the Florida bonneted bat, but has yet to do so as the species remains critically endangered.

(CN) — Conservation groups sued the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service on Wednesday to demand protections for the critical habitat of endangered Florida bonneted bats.

These bats, named after their large, bonnet-like ears, are found nowhere else in the world but Florida and are currently on the brink of extinction due to habitat destruction.

This is the second lawsuit brought against the Service by the Center for Biological Diversity, the Tropical Audubon Society and the Miami Blue Charter of the North American Butterfly Association.

In 2018, the Service agreed to to propose 1.5 million acres of critical habitat for the bats in 2020, but has yet to publish a final critical habitat determination.

After granting these bats protection under the Endangered Species Act in 2013, the Service failed to include designated critical habitat for the species as required by law, asserting that it was "not determinable."

Because bats are highly mobile and difficult to detect, counting individuals and accurately assessing population size is very difficult.

According to the complaint, the animal "has one of the most restricted distributions of any species of bat," with an estimated 26 colonies and a total population of only 286 bats.

These bats have been detected across a wide variety of southern Florida habitats, including semitropical forests with tropical hardwood, pineland and mangrove habitats, as well as man-made areas such as golf courses and neighborhoods.

Human population growth and associated development have slashed the bat's habitat over time, but climate change and rising sea levels also pose the threat of a phenomenon called "coastal squeeze," where a species and its habitat become trapped between urban development and continuously rising seas, until its ultimately squeezed out of existence.

Projections indicate that sea levels in South Florida will rise between 3 and 6 feet within much of the bats’ habitat over the course of this century, according to the Center for Biological Diversity.

These bats also have very low reproductive rates and only give birth to one offspring per breeding season.

Roosting sites, commonly composed of a male and several females, can be found in tree cavities, caves and rock crevices, as well as in artificial structures such as chimneys, bridges, under Spanish-style barrel tiles on roofs and constructed bat houses.

After foraging at night for insects, bats use these roosts as a shelter where they can socialize, mate and rear their young.

"If Florida bonneted bats depend on relatively few roosts as suspected, and given their small population size and the uncertainty about availability of suitable roosts, they may well have difficulty finding and occupying new roosts. Therefore, protecting existing roosts is very important to conserving the species," wrote the Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission in their 2013 action plan.

Another indication of the species' decline is from pest control companies accepting requests to remove bats from buildings up until 1982.

The potential impact of pesticides from mosquito control operations is unknown, but may also be significant according to the Service's species assessment in 2008.

According to the Center for Biological Diversity, animals with federally protected critical habitat are more than twice as likely to be moving toward recovery than species without it. Federal agencies are required to consult with the Service before funding or permitting projects in critical habitat to ensure the area is not damaged or destroyed by their actions.

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