You don't have to tell most of the good people of Austin about bats: The fact that the Texas Hill Country is a favorite roosting spot for dozens of species of bats, including the nearly 1.5 million Mexican free-tail bats that live under the Congress Avenue bridge and nearly 20 million at Bracken Cave, is a point of pride for many around these parts. But many don't know that around the state of Texas -- indeed, across North America -- nearly 50% of all bat species are threatened or endangered. The Texas Legislature is preparing to give these nocturnal creatures a hand, by passing a law that would provide bats with the sort of legal protection seen in other states with large bat populations, such as Tennessee and New Mexico.
The bill, passed by the Senate on Tuesday, would make it unlawful for individuals to kill, sell, purchase, or possess a bat, providing the Texas Parks and Wildlife Dept. with tools to protect the animals. Vandalism and destruction of colonies would also be outlawed under the measure. The original bill was modified to allow professional pest-control specialists to help private individuals remove bats from residences and public places, such as schools and hospitals. The legislation, carried by Jeff Wentworth, R-San Antonio, in the Senate and Edmund Kuempel, R-Seguin, and Debra Danburg, D-Houston, in the House, has bipartisan support.
According to biologist Gary McCracken, a researcher at the University of Tennessee who has come to Texas about twice a year since 1981 to study bats, bat lovers are alarmed by a booming black market in the mammals. In some cases, whole colonies are sold to scientists for research; in others, people buy individual bats to keep as pets. McCracken says he's even heard tales of graduate students being approached by bat hunters who offer to provide them with dozens of animals for experiments.
McCracken notes that historically, because of their associations with disease and vampires, bats have been targeted by pranks, including the wanton destruction of entire colonies. "Bats have enough other problems without these sorts of disturbances," he says.
In the state of Texas, though, largely because private landowners tend to consider the wildlife on their land part of their property, there has been no move to provide legal protection for the 30 species of bats here -- until now. Barbara French, of the Austin-based group Bat Conservation International, says this lack of protection has meant that Texas has been a prime target for bat-nappers, who often travel out of state where they can sell bats to ignorant or unethical buyers. Since bats can dependably be found sleeping in caves during the day, and because they are generally quite small, French says, those interested in capturing large numbers can do so with relative ease. Worse still, she says, it's virtually impossible for pups to survive if their mothers are removed from their roosts during breeding season. "We get calls from researchers each year," says French. "We have reports that people come here and take them out of caves in numbers as high as a thousand at a time. Bats are so slow to reproduce that that could destroy an entire colony."