Wins for wildlife: Critical habitat designated for the Florida bonneted bat and a new refuge unit established in Southwest Florida

March 20, 2024

By Amber Crooks and Julianne Thomas, Conservancy of Southwest Florida

Two big announcements this month by the United States Fish and Wildlife Service (USFWS), bolstered by the support of the Conservancy of Southwest Florida and our partners, have advanced conservation in a big way for our region. It is our understanding that the Conservancy’s science-based analysis helped shape the ultimate boundaries of each of these initiatives: 

  • Designated “critical habitat” for the endangered Florida bonneted bat, and 
  • The newest unit of the National Wildlife Refuge system, the “Everglades to Gulf” Conservation Area.
Rare Florida bonneted bat roost tree, photo by Amber Crooks

These two actions will help protect environmentally sensitive lands that support our rare and endangered wildlife. On March 7, 2024, the agency published a final announcement designating the imperiled Florida bonneted bat its “critical habitat” — a special area under the Endangered Species Act that is essential to the conservation of protected species that may need special management or protection.

The designated area covers almost 1.2 million acres across Florida bonneted bat range, stretching from Collier County to Osceola County in thirteen different counties. Approval of “critical habitat” means another layer of protection when development or other activities are proposed in the bonneted bat’s habitat. While “critical habitat” designation doesn’t preclude development, it is a useful tool provided by the Endangered Species Act to better protect listed species. “Critical habitat” provides additional review and coordination for proposed activities and development within the designated area.

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Map of Unit 5 Florida bonneted bat “critical habitat,” map from USFWS announcement

We are pleased that the designation boundaries included Unit #5, which adds 48,000 acres in Collier and Lee Counties. As part of the Conservancy’s input in this process, we pointed out the science that showed bonneted bats have a high probability of occurrence in this area of southwest Florida, and that field biologists have found bonneted bat roosts here. These 48,000 acres were not previously under consideration. Protecting this area is not only essential for the future of the imperiled Florida bonneted bat (a species for which science knew very little about when it was first protected under the Endangered Species Act in 2013), but also has the added benefit of protecting many other species. The Florida bonneted bat designated “critical habitat” overlaps the ranges of 43 other ESA-listed species.

Believed to be one of the rarest bats in North America, development in southwest Florida threatens areas relied upon by bats, and encroachment into their habitat is increasing. While the Conservancy notes some areas missing from the “critical habitat” designation boundaries, it is still a much-needed step to help advance the recovery of this rare endemic bat.

Boardwalk planks showing the name of each of the 570+ units of the National Wildlife Refuge system, photo by Amber Crooks

Just a few days later, on March 11th, 2024, the USFWS again proclaimed fantastic news to help advance the conservation of wildlife in southwest Florida. The newest unit of the National Wildlife Refuge system was announced, officially establishing the “Everglades to Gulf” Conservation Area. The announcement took place at Pelican Island National Wildlife Refuge, the nation’s first national wildlife refuge, protected in 1903 by President Theodore Roosevelt. The “Everglades to Gulf” Conservation Area marks the 571st unit of the Refuge system. 

Map of the “Everglades to Gulf” Conservation Area, map by USFWS

The “Everglades to Gulf” Conservation Area delineates an over 4-million-acre area as the envelope for which environmentally-sensitive lands can now be protected. The new Refuge unit includes key habitat areas for more than 100 threatened and endangered species. Much of the land within the delineated boundaries is endangered Florida panther habitat and matches closely with the Florida Wildlife Corridor. In the Conservancy’s important input into this process, we specifically requested the agency to include a key panther corridor that was analyzed by the Panther Recovery Implementation Team (PRIT), an entity we have been serving for many years. Utilizing this science-based information, we are happy to see the Conservation Area includes lands that would connect southwest Florida up to planned large mammal crossings at Interstate 4, a major barrier to wildlife. We hope that the inclusion of this area will allow for not only connections within southwest Florida’s fast-developing landscapes but also for regional connectivity to lands northward, where additional panther populations are needed for a full recovery of the species.