Twenty million dollars may seem like a lot of money to spend on protecting one bat colony—after all, that’s over a dollar a bat when you consider that our recent estimate of the colony size is around 10–15 million bats. But the economics of what a bat is worth in this case should take into account the ecosystem services that the bats of Bracken Cave, individually and collectively, provide to the region’s agriculture. At 10–15 million bats, this colony eats over 100 tons of insects—every night—during the summer months, saving local corn and cotton farmers millions of dollars and, thereby, supporting the Texas economy. And it doesn’t stop there: More than a dozen other large colonies of bats across central Texas contribute in a similar manner to their local communities (see related sidebar on opposite page for more).
Although Bracken Cave and its bats are receiving most of the attention and were the catalyst behind our effort, this conservation agreement with The Nature Conservancy and Galo Properties (see full story on page 8) has implications beyond Bracken’s bats: It sets a tone for BCI’s bat conservation efforts in the region and around the world.
Our commitment to protect the most threatened bat species and the most important bat sites around the world starts—and often ends—with our work here at home. Demonstrating our commitment to protecting the largest colony of bats in the world was an important step toward building the credibility with our conservation partners that we can collaborate on large projects and think creatively about accomplishing our conservation targets. This effort brought together community leaders, private foundations, local and state government, and private and public organizations and businesses to work toward a common solution.
Our goal is to use this same approach to tackle other bat conservation challenges here and across the globe. In central Texas, Bracken is one of almost a dozen large, important summer roosts that are home to Mexican free-tailed bats (Tadarida brasiliensis), an economically important species to the region’s agriculture. Ensuring the lasting conservation of this species in the heart of its range requires a conservation strategy that goes beyond Bracken, taking into account the meta-population of bats in central Texas and prioritizing conservation actions where they are the most vulnerable.
We have already begun thinking about regional protection for this species. Identifying threats to significant roosting sites for our largest colonies of bats will be the first step to developing a strategy to work with landowners and other partners to ensure that those sites are available to bats in perpetuity. Maternity colonies, like Bracken Cave, are especially vulnerable because the females require special temperatures and conditions to give birth and raise young. Baby bats can’t leave the roost for four to six weeks, making disturbances at these sites a real problem. But we can’t safeguard these bats by simply protecting the roosts. So we also are developing strategies to address threats to bats as they leave roosts to forage and drink across the landscape. Providing a buffer around these sensitive roosts is important for bats, but it also is important for maintaining the entire ecosystem on which the bats rely. Purchasing the land underneath the flight path of Bracken’s bats was an obvious action that supports this vision.
Many of the other key bat roosts in central Texas are already being protected. For example, Texas Parks and Wildlife owns and manages two large bat roosts in the area, Devil’s Sinkhole and Old Tunnel Wildlife Management Area. The Nature Conservancy protects another large roost at James Eckert River Bat Cave. Both organizations already provide protection to these colonies from disturbances and urbanization through the ownership of lands around the cave and careful management of visitation and other activities. The public education occurring during bat emergences builds a conservation ethic among visitors and in the surrounding communities—while also generating ecotourism and ecosystem-services dollars for the local economy.
Other mega-populations of bats likely provide similar financial incentives, which can be leveraged with local communities to promote conservation. Our approach to bat conservation here in Central Texas will inevitably be different than in other places around the world, but so many of the same guiding principles are likely to apply. Strong partnerships with a wide range of people and organizations are key, as are clear goals that encompass not only conservation, but also the interests of the surrounding communities. But the most important building block in this effort is trust.
Building trust with local communities and stakeholders is central to our conservation success, not only here in Central Texas but around the world—trust that we are invested in the regions in which we work and trust that we have an understanding of the unique relationships local communities have with their bat populations.
These three guiding principles—establishing and leveraging strong and broad partnerships, mutual interests, and community trust—have proven to work here in our home state of Texas with the protection of Bracken Cave. We hope to have continued success applying these same principles in the future as we work toward protecting other mega-populations of bats around the world.