By Laura Zuckerman
(Reuters) - An unusual alliance of volunteer researchers and tequila makers have helped rescue a crucial American Southwest pollinator known as the lesser long-nosed bat from the brink of extinction, according to U.S. wildlife managers who want the bat removed from the endangered and threatened species list.
The bat, known for feeding on nectar and playing a key role in the pollination of such plants as agaves in Mexico, was protected under the U.S. Endangered Species Act in 1988, when its population had dwindled to just 1,000 at 14 known roosts, government biologists said.
Habitat destruction threatened the bat with extinction, U.S. wildlife managers said. For instance, its roosting areas in Mexico were destroyed as part of an eradication effort aimed at rabies-infected vampire bats, while development affected other roosting and feeding areas.
Today, the lesser long-nosed bat is estimated to number 200,000 at 75 roosts across a range stretching from southern Mexico to southern Arizona and New Mexico.
Citizen scientists in Arizona monitored the bat’s night-time use of hummingbird feeders, providing biologists with a better understanding of the elusive creature’s migratory and other habits, U.S. wildlife managers said.
Tequila makers in Mexico provided a valuable assist by making bat-friendly varieties of the liquor, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service said. This raised the profile of the once-struggling bat and popularized the campaign to protect it and its habitat.
The tequilas are marketed in Mexico by producers who rely on agaves pollinated by lesser long-nosed bats.
In the United States, lesser long-nosed bats mostly roost and forage on agaves and cacti like saguaro and organ pipe on public lands where measures have been adopted to limit human interference with roost sites like caves and abandoned mines, according to the wildlife agency.
Several of the bat populations reside year-round in southern Mexico but others migrate to that country’s northern tier and across the U.S. border to southern Arizona and New Mexico in search of maternity roosting sites. The nocturnal creature’s foraging is driven by a so-called nectar trail made up of flowering agaves, cacti and other blooming plants that form the bat’s diet.
The Fish and Wildlife Service is accepting public comment through March 7 on its proposal to delist the lesser long-nosed bat.
It was declared recovered by Mexico in 2015 and removed from that country’s endangered species list.
(Reporting by Laura Zuckerman in Salmon, Idaho; Editing by Dan Whitcomb and David Gregorio)