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Endangered Florida bat promised habitat protection after yearslong legal battle

After being sued twice by conservation groups, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service finally agreed to designate critical habitat for the rapidly disappearing Florida bonneted bat.

(CN) — A Florida district court released good news Friday for a fragile species of bats on the verge of extinction that will now have federally protected habitat.

The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service agreed to designate critical habitat for the endangered Florida bonneted bat by Nov. 15, after two lawsuits were filed by conservation groups urgently asking the agency to do so.

These bats, named after their large, bonnet-like ears, are found nowhere else in the world but Florida and currently face devastating habitat loss from urbanization and rising sea levels.

“It is unfortunate that conservation groups have to routinely sue the USFWS in order to compel them to do their job, especially in circumstances as clear at that presented by the Florida bonneted bat’s need for critical habitat designation,” said Dennis Olle, president of the Miami Blue Chapter of the North American Butterfly Association. “We hope this agreement will finally secure a better future for the bat but stand ready to keep fighting until this incredibly vulnerable species gets the protections it deserves.”

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

Five years later, the conservation groups sued the agency and it finally agreed to propose 1.5 million acres of critical habitat for the bats in 2020, but has yet to publish a final critical habitat determination.

"While the service continues to delay designating critical habitat, imminent development plans threaten to destroy or degrade even more key habitat before it can receive protections. This ongoing habitat loss, absent protections, harms the bat's chances to survive and recover," according to a second complaint filed in July by the Center for Biological Diversity, the Tropical Audubon Society and the Miami Blue Charter of the North American Butterfly Association in their

Since the Endangered Species Act was passed in 1973, FWS officials "often drag their feet on designating critical habitat or even refuse to designate it altogether," according to the Center for Biological Diversity, which has filed many lawsuits fighting to ensure habitat protections for endangered species.

When determining a species' critical habitat, the FWS has to evaluate which areas they currently occupy and consider what physical and biological features a species needs for life processes and successful reproduction, while also taking into consideration the probable economic and other impacts of the designation.

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 FWS before funding or permitting projects in critical habitat to ensure the area is not damaged or destroyed by their actions.

Because bats are highly mobile and difficult to detect, counting individuals and accurately assessing population size can be quite challenging. But according to the conservation groups, the Florida bonneted bat "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.

While they may be small in numbers, these bats are the largest in size found in Florida and have been detected across various type of habitats including semitropical forests with tropical hardwood, pineland and mangrove habitats, as well as suburban 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 it's 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, with roosting sites often nestled in man-made structures such as chimneys, bridges and even under Spanish-style barrel tiles on roofs.

Another factor in the species' decline comes 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 FWS's species assessment in 2008.

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