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Citizen Science and Tequila Help Bring an Endangered Bat Back From the Brink

Lesser long-nosed bat. Photo: USFWS Original source:
Lesser long-nosed bat. Photo: USFWS. Public Domain.

Collaborative conservation efforts, including research, bat-friendly tequila production, and citizen science, have led to the recovery of an endangered southwest bat.

Last week, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service proposed to remove the lesser long-nosed bat (Leptonycteris yerbabuenae) from the federal endangered species list.

The bat was initially listed as an endangered species in 1988, when a decline in roosting colonies in Arizona and Sonora caused it to struggle for survival. At the time, there were thought to be fewer than 1,000 bats at 14 known roost sites. Today, there are an estimated 200,000 lesser long-nosed bats spread across 75 roosts.

This successful recovery is due to an international team effort involving citizen scientists in Arizona, tequila producers in Mexico, biologists in the U.S. and Mexico, non-governmental organizations, and federal and state agencies. It demonstrates the power of the Endangered Species Act to drive collaborative conservation and save species.

Powerful Pollinators

Lesser long-nosed bats range from New Mexico and Arizona to southern Mexico. They eat nectar, pollen, and fruit and play an important role in pollinating desert plants. Some Mexican populations stay year-round, but others migrate to northern Mexico and the U.S. southwest to give birth. The bats’ migrations and maternity roost sites depend on the timing and location of the “nectar trail” – the blooming and fruiting season of flowering plants like agave and saguaro cactus that make up the bats’ diet.

Factors such as land development, invasive grasses, and early harvesting of wild agave before it bloomed disturbed how the bats ate during migration. To help alleviate these problems in the U.S., federal agencies incorporated the management of the bats’ favorite plants into their land use and resource management plans. In Mexico, intensive livestock grazing was decreased to allow native plants to grow and blossom.

Citizen Science to Save Bats

Lesser long-nosed bats began frequenting backyard hummingbird feeders at higher rates after a widespread failure in the agave bloom in 2006. The next year, an outreach program was started in which southern Arizona residents monitored the nightly bat use of their hummingbird feeders.

Photo: ALAN SCHMIERER, via Flickr. Public Domain.
Photo: ALAN SCHMIERER, via Flickr. Public Domain.

The data collected has helped biologists gain a clearer understanding of the population, as well as the timing of the bats’ migration.

The program has also allowed scientists to capture bats and affix radio transmitters to them, to aid in the discovery of new roosting sites. With this information, federal agencies and non-governmental organizations like Bat Conservation International have worked to deter human disturbance of lesser long-nosed bat roost sites, such as caves and abandoned mines. They have also designed, researched, and installed bat gates that allow bats access to roost sites while eliminating human access.

Tequila for Bats

In Mexico, tequila producers are also playing a role in bringing the lesser long-nosed bat back.

Agave is a favorite plant for the bats, and they pollinate the cactuses as they feed from them. Mexican tequila producers, who use agaves in the distillation process, are integrating harvest and cultivation practices that contribute to bat conservation. These changes reflect the growing recognition that agaves rely on bats for pollination, and some companies are even marketing “bat-friendly tequila.”

Photo: Nancy Bailey, via Flickr. Distributed undera  CC BY-NC-ND 2.0 license.
Photo: Nancy Bailey, via Flickr. Distributed undera CC BY-NC-ND 2.0 license.

Historically, bat roost sites were destroyed in efforts to control vampire bats, which can carry rabies and feed on livestock. But these efforts also affected non-target bats like the lesser long-nosed bat. An educational campaign to change attitudes towards bats and improve bat species identification has had success in lesser long-nosed bat conservation. As a result, the bat was removed from Mexico’s endangered species list in 2015.

Endangered Species Success

Last week, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service issued a species status assessment of the lesser long-nosed bat, proposing it be removed from the U.S. endangered species list.

The Service is requesting comments or information on the proposal by March 7, 2017. You can learn how to submit comments electronically or by hard copy here.

If the lesser long-nosed bat is delisted, the Service would continue to monitor its status for at least five years. It would be the first bat to be taken off the federal endangered species list.

This bat’s recovery shows how citizens, companies, scientists, non-governmental organizations, and federal and state agencies can work together to save a species, under the umbrella of the Endangered Species Act. At a time when there is no dearth of bad news for bats, this is an encouraging success story.

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