WASHINGTON (CN) — With bats — important pollinators and insect pest controllers — under siege from white-nose syndrome, the Chiroptera animal order got some rare good news Tuesday, when the Fish and Wildlife Service said the lesser long-nosed bat has recovered sufficiently to be removed from the endangered species list.
It is the first bat to be delisted due to recovery, Fish and Wildlife said.
White-nose syndrome, a fungal disease, has devastated bats around the country, even as other important pollinators, such as bees and butterflies, are struggling with problems of their own, some naturally induced, some the result of pesticides.
White nose syndrome is not a significant threat to the lesser long-nosed bat, as the disease affects mainly hibernating bats, and the lesser long-nosed bat (Leptonycteris yuerbabuenae) does not hibernate.
Grazing, development, roost destruction, vandalism and squatting in caves, improper agave harvesting, vampire bat control methods, invasive species and fire are some of the major threats to this species.
The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service led a collaborative conservation effort for three decades to bring this nectar-feeding migratory bat back from the brink of extinction.
Numbering fewer than 1,000 in only 14 known roosts when it is was listed as endangered in 1988, Fish and Wildlife estimates there are 200,000 lesser long-nosed bats today at 75 roosts in the U.S. Southwest and Mexico.
“The recovery of the amazing lesser long-nosed bat shows the Endangered Species Act is working,” Michael Robinson, conservation advocate with the Center for Biological Diversity said in an email.
“This landmark conservation law has saved more than 99 percent of species given its protections from extinction. And it’s put hundreds more, including this amazing flying mammal, on the road to recovery.”
Bats, never a popular endangered species such as cute panda bears or impressive whales, nevertheless perform important functions for humans, including pollination and mosquito control.
The lesser long-nose’s recovery team includes biologists, researchers in the United States and Mexico, tribal, state and federal entities such as the U.S. Forest Service, Bureau of Land Management and the Army’s Fort Huachuca, nongovernmental organizations, citizen scientists and even tequila producers in Mexico, the agency says.
The bats are vital to the tequila industry, as they pollinate and disperse seeds of the agave cactus, used for tequila. Mexican producers integrated harvest and cultivation practices to support the bats and even market “bat-friendly tequila.”
Tequila, like Champagne, is produced only in one geographic region, in tequila’s case, the Mexican state of Jalisco. Agave-based liquor produced outside of Jalisco therefore cannot be called tequila. In the state of Oaxaca, it is called mezcal.
Educating the public about the value of bats has been a vital component in their recovery. Destruction of bat roosts due to fear of bats has been reduced by public education and installation of bat access gates designed by Bat Conservation International, which prevent people from getting into the roosts.
Mexico’s public education campaign helped its livestock industry distinguish between the lesser long-nosed bat and vampire bats, which feed upon cattle. As a result of changing attitudes, Mexico was able to remove the lesser long-nosed bat from its endangered species list in 2015.
Citizen scientists in Southern Arizona monitored nighttime bat use of hummingbird feeders and helped biologists capture and fit the bats with radio transmitters, which helped researchers understand the bats’ migrations and find their roosting sites so they could be protected.
“The science clearly shows threats to the bat have been eliminated or reduced to the point that the bat has recovered,” said Fish and Wildlife’s Southwest regional director Amy Lueders.
“The service is proud of our strong, decades-long partnerships with very diverse stakeholders on behalf of the lesser long-nosed bat. Without partnerships and collaborations such as these, successful recovery would not be possible.”
Environmentalists noted that Fish and Wildlife has been challenged by the time constraints of the Endangered Species Act and the agency’s chronic underfunding.
As often as not, the federal government does not list a species for protection without a lawsuit, and this case is no different.
Though usually conservation groups sue the agency to get imperiled species listed, in this case New Mexico Cattle Growers Association and others sued in 2015 to compel Fish and Wildlife to act on its own recommendation to downlist the bats from endangered to threatened in its 2007 five-year review.
The Pacific Legal Foundation, on behalf of ranchers and farm bureaus, petitioned the agency in July 2012 to act on the downlisting recommendation in the five-year review. In September 2013, Fish and Wildlife published a 90-day petition finding that the downlisting action was warranted.
The cattle growers sued two years later in the absence of further action by the agency. The case was settled with the stipulation that a 12-month finding would be published by the end of 2016. Fish and Wildlife published the finding and the proposed delisting of the bats in January 2017.
Since the bats are found mainly on public lands in the United States, its endangered status conflicted with grazing rights. Even a downlisting would have benefited the ranchers, because a special rule available with threatened species, but not with endangered species, would allow ranchers more livestock grazing on land in the bat’s range.
Now that the bats are delisted, margarita drinkers who understand the importance of pollinator species can celebrate.
The delisting of the lesser long-nosed bat will be effective 30 days from the expected publication date of the final rule on Wednesday, April 18. Fish and Wildlife is working on a post-delisting monitoring plan, to ensure the bats continue to thrive.