For 30 years, the lesser long-nosed bat languished on the endangered species list, the federal government’s sick ward for animals on the verge of being wiped out.
Its story, like those of most animals on the list, was a downer.
Researchers counted fewer than a thousand in 1988 as human development moved in on the bats’ habitat in Arizona, New Mexico and Mexico.
The expansion uprooted a key food source — agave, the source of tequila — and a flower that towers over the plant when it blooms.
The flower’s sweet nectar is the animals’ energy source, “their Red Bull,” one scientist said. In return, they help pollinate the agave.
But just in time for Earth Day, the lesser long-nosed bat’s saga has taken a dramatic turn for the better.
Officials announced this week that there are now an estimated 200,000, following an all-out effort to save them by the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, acting with the Mexican government, schools, conservationists and various other partners.
They will go down in history as the first bat species to be removed from the endangered list.
“It’s pretty exciting, a pretty big deal,” said Scott Richardson, a Fish and Wildlife biologist who specializes in bats.
And, considering that in recent years, “there’s been nothing but really bad news for bats in the U.S.” because of the millions that have died from a lethal disease called white nose syndrome, Richardson said, it’s an even bigger deal.
Since the 1970s, hundreds of species have gone on the list, but fewer than 50 have been removed, according to a spreadsheet provided by Fish and Wildlife.
The American alligator, brown pelican, humpback whale, Northern Rocky Mountain gray wolf, San Miguel Island fox and bald eagle are among them.
To join them, the lesser long-nosed bat needed the help of Bat Man, the nickname of Mexican ecologist Rodrigo Medellin, who mounted a public education initiative and an industry campaign to produce bat-friendly tequila.
On the American side of the border, said Winifred Frick, chief scientist for Bat Conservation International, a nonprofit based in Texas, gates were created to guard the entrances to mines where the bats roost.
Bats are sensitive to disturbances such as humans poking around, and the gates restricted vandalism and people who, oddly, liked to recreate in abandoned subterranean mines.
Because the mines are a human health risk, they are often bulldozed shut, so wildlife officials and conservationists worked to convince counties and states to forgo that practice.
Richardson said immigrants crossing the border were also a problem.
Often, they try to evade capture by hiding in mines. While there, they start cooking and warming fires that scare the bats.
“Sometimes, they just kill the bats,” he said.
Another element of success appears to have had nothing to do with conservation and its protections, Richardson and Frick said.
Once a conservation plan was established in the mid-1990s and money was allotted for the effort, new technology helped researchers find bats in places they weren’t known to roost.
That raises the question of whether this species ever belonged on the endangered list.
“There’s probably no question that there were more bats than were described at the time they were listed,” Richardson said.
But “you can’t protect them if you don’t know where they are, so finding these roosts was important,” he said.
He added, “Regardless of whether they were listed, they were still under threat.”
Extending protections to species only to find that there were more animals than originally thought is an issue that riles conservatives who say the Endangered Species Act is too often wrongly applied.
Bills put forward by congressional Republicans seek to remove the law’s most powerful requirements.
Still, there is no question that cattle grazing, farming and construction significantly altered the habitat of the lesser long-nosed bat.
As one strategy, officials from Arizona Fish and Game, U.S. Fish and Wildlife and Bat Conservation struck a deal with agave farmers.
The farmers don’t need the flower spike from which bats drink nectar.
“We typically don’t let the plants actually flower, so we worked with tequila producers to let a percentage of the plants flower,” Frick said.
Agave is also used for other drinks and as a syruplike sweetener, so the farmers had to be cajoled into preserving the bats’ food source.
“For me, it’s exciting because it’s been a perfect example of partnerships,” Richardson said.
“Game agencies, schools, tequila growers, a ton of people who have been involved over the last 30 years. We wouldn’t be where we are today without the tremendous partnerships.”
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