June 2005, Volume 3, Issue 6

Restoring a Natural Wonder

Millions of Mexican Free Tails leaving the cave.

Bat Conservation International has, almost miraculously, acquired 696 acres of ruggedly beautiful land in the central Texas Hill Country. This tract surrounds the famous Bracken Bat Cave, which BCI has owned and protected since 1992. That cave, on the northwestern fringe of San Antonio, is home to millions of Mexican free-tailed bats – the largest community of mammals on Earth.

Once, before the settlers came, this was a landscape of waist-high prairie grasses and open savannahs studded with ancient oaks and dappled with red-berried agarita and twisted persimmon. A dazzling array of wildlife thrived there.

Then farms, roads and towns cleared the land. Livestock overgrazed the grasslands. Fires that had kept the plants in balance were suppressed, allowing thirsty Ashe junipers (known to Texans as “cedars”) to emerge from their rocky enclaves along ravines and hillsides. Dense cedar brakes choked the savannahs, as they do to this day.

Now BCI is restoring what will become the Bracken Bat Cave and Nature Reserve as closely as possible to its historical condition. That’s the first step toward the creating a unique, world-class public-education center built around the great bat colony.

An evening emergence of the bats of Bracken Cave is an unforgettable sight. Protecting this priceless natural resource must be BCI’s top priority. Until the visitors’ center is in place, visitors must remain limited almost exclusively to BCI members on select summer nights. But the Bracken Bat Cave and Nature Reserve will one day open this wildlife wonder to people from around the world – without endangering the bats or their Hill Country habitat.

And the cause of bat conservation will take a huge leap forward.

But first comes the land. Working with biologists from The Nature Conservancy’s Texas Chapter, the U.S. Natural Resources Conservation Service and the Texas Parks and Wildlife Department, we have developed land-management and prescribed-burning plans. With the support of more than 60 BCI members and foundations, initial brush clearing and cedar chopping is complete on the first 100 acres. The entire tract is now protected by four miles of eight-foot-high game fence. One abandoned water well was repaired and a new well drilled.

But much more remains to be done. Hundreds more acres must be cleared, and flora and fauna surveys must be conducted to determine the extent and diversity of the resources and help plan their conservation.

The schedule depends largely on developing financial support for this most ambitious and promising of BCI’s initiatives.

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