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Public comment requested over a revised proposal for critical habitat of endangered bonneted bats

Brown bat wrapped in a blue blanket with a blurred green background.
Gary Morse
Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission

While an original plan was presented in 2020, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service now wants to designate approximately 1.2 million acres as critical habitat across 13 counties - this marks a 21% reduction from the previous proposal.

Federal wildlife officials are collecting public comments over changes to a proposed critical habitat designation for endangered bonneted bats, which are native to central and south Florida.

Because they reproduce slowly and in small litters, bonneted bats are especially vulnerable to loss of habitat from development, sea level rise and agriculture.

The insectivorous, nonmigratory tropical bats are found in forests, wetlands, and even residential and urban areas.

The species was protected under the Endangered Species Act in 2013 and has one of the most restricted distributions of any bat species in the Western Hemisphere. Their population size is estimated to be in the low hundreds to low thousands, but it’s not exactly known.

While an original plan was presented in 2020, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service now wants to designate approximately 1.2 million acres as critical habitat across 13 counties: Polk, DeSoto, Hardee, Glades, Hendry, Highlands, Okeechobee, Osceola, Charlotte, Lee, Collier, Miami-Dade and Monroe.

A news release from the Service said this marks a 21% reduction in critical habitat from the previous proposal, while it still meets the bats' conservation needs.

The release said that the revised proposal includes changes to the physical or biological features and the criteria and methodology used to identify those specific areas that constitute critical habitat.

“The proposed critical habitats fall within the ranges of 42 federally listed species and their existing designated critical habitats; 89% of the proposed designation overlaps existing conservation lands,” according to the release. “This proposal would designate approximately 121,500 acres as critical habitats in areas not already designated as critical habitat or within existing conservation lands.”

A draft economic analysis conducted for the proposal estimated the total costs to be $70,800 per year.

Ragan Whitlock, a Florida-based attorney at the Center for Biological Diversity, said in an email that the new designation appears to omit areas imminently threatened by development in eastern Collier County.

He said the USFWSshould also have designated unoccupied habitat in the northern part of the species’ range in the Peace River watershed to strengthen against future habitat and range loss to climate change and sea level rise.

“While I’m happy that the Fish and Wildlife Service has agreed to designate more than 1 million acres of critical habitat for the Florida bonneted bat, it excluded some areas threatened by imminent development,” said Whitlock. “This decision arbitrarily disregarded vital habitat that sustains bats living at the urban edge, and I hope that’s corrected before the rule is finalized.”

He added that he thinks the Service’s proposal disregards the importance of key foraging areas, like those on the proposed Miami Wilds site, by broadly excluding “human-made structures.”

Service Regional Director Leopoldo Miranda-Castro said in the release that they will incorporate the public’s comments and best science available into protecting Florida bonneted bats.

“The Service is committed to working with local communities, state and federal agencies, Tribes, conservation groups and private sector partners to ensure they have the tools they need to protect and recover America’s imperiled species,” he said.

Members of the public have a chance to comment through January 23, 2023. The revised proposal and information on how to submit comments can be found on www.regulations.gov by searching under docket number FWS-R4-ES-2019-0106.

Requests for a public hearing on the revised proposed rule must be submitted in writing by January 6, 2023, and submitted by U.S. mail to: Public Comments Processing, Attn: FWS–R4–ES–2019–0106; U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, MS: BPHC; 5275 Leesburg Pike; Falls Church, VA 22041-3803.

My main role for WUSF is to report on climate change and the environment, while taking part in NPR’s High-Impact Climate Change Team. I’m also a participant of the Florida Climate Change Reporting Network.