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Federal wildlife officials propose critical habitat for endangered Florida bonneted bat

The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service proposed designating nearly 1.2 million acres of critical habitat — much of it in existing conservation lands — for the species, which is on the verge of extinction due to habitat loss from urbanization and rising sea levels.

(CN) — The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service on Monday released a revised proposal to designate nearly 1.2 million acres of critical habitat for the endangered Florida bonneted bat.

The bat, which is native only to the southern and central regions of the Sunshine State, currently faces devastating habitat loss from climate change and urban sprawl. It nearly went extinct until a lawsuit filed by conservation groups compelled the federal government in 2013 to grant the species protections under the Endangered Species Act.

According to a statement from the Fish and Wildlife Service, the population of bonneted bats is estimated to be in the low hundreds to low thousands. Animals with federally protected critical habitat are more than twice as likely to be moving toward recovery than species without it.

Named for the large, broad ears that project forward over their eyes like bonnets, the bonneted bat is the largest bat found in the state but has the smallest habitat range of any bat species. The areas it calls home are highly susceptible to rising sea levels and urban development, factors that dramatically threaten the species’ resiliency.

The bat also reproduces slowly, giving birth to just one offspring per breeding season.

The proposed critical habitat area is comprised of nine “units” spread across 13 Florida counties to allow for sufficiently diverse roosting and foraging habitats. The chosen areas were evaluated to consider the physical and biological features essential to the conservation of the species, as well as any economic and national security impacts.

Approximately 89% of the critical habitat will overlap with existing conservation lands, including Everglades National Park, Picayune Strand State Forest and the Corkscrew Regional Ecosystem Watershed.

The announcement comes after conservation groups sued the federal government in 2018 and earlier this year to secure habitat safeguards for the species. In October, the Fish And Wildlife Service agreed to a settlement in Florida federal court to designate critical habitat for the bat.

The agency first published a proposal in 2020 to designate critical habitat for the bonneted bat in four units of land across 1.4 million acres in portions of 10 Florida counties. Federal wildlife officials made changes to the criteria and methodology used to identify the critical habitat areas after a public comment period, leading to a 21% reduction in critical habitat.

In a statement released Tuesday, the Center for Biological Diversity criticized the revised proposal for failing to extend protections for the species’ unoccupied critical habitat and for excluding manmade structures like bat boxes or buildings where the bats may roost.

Areas were considered “occupied” by the Fish and Wildlife Service if they had documented presence of the bats from October 2013 through 2021.

“While I’m happy that the Fish and Wildlife Service is moving to protect more than 1 million acres of critical habitat for the Florida bonneted bat, it has excluded crucial areas threatened by immediate development,” said Ragan Whitlock, a Florida-based attorney at the Center for Biological Diversity. “We hope the Service will revise the final designation to accurately reflect all the areas these charming bats need to recover.”

The proposal says the agency has not identified any unoccupied areas that meet the critical habitat definition, finding instead that "occupied areas are sufficient for the conservation of the species."

“We are disappointed by the exclusion of certain disturbed or otherwise human-modified areas that are clearly important to the survival of the Florida bonneted bat. The Service’s failure to understand this shows a surprising lack of reliance on good science,” Dennis Olle, president of the Miami Blue Chapter of the North American Butterfly Association, said.

The proposal is not yet final. A 60-day public comment period will remain open until Jan. 23.

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