A recent acoustic monitoring survey of the endangered Florida bonneted bat showed that these flying mammals love to hang out at Zoo Miami’s parking lot, even more so than at six bat houses installed inside the zoo.
Something about the dark, open area attracts the fast-flying and large bats to this paved-over plot, supporting the argument that the zoo’s parking lot, located next to one of the world’s last remnants of rare pine Rockland forest, is an environmentally sensitive area that should be preserved, activists say.
Between May and December last year, Bat Conservation International installed ten acoustic detectors across Miami-Dade to identify behavior and distribution patterns. In total, more than 3.7 million bat calls were recorded over 684 nights from the ten sites. While bonneted bat calls were recorded in all ten sites, including Fairchild Tropical Botanic Garden and inside the zoo, the parking lot showed the greatest activity: an average of 6,000 calls per night, more than double the calls in all nine other sites.
County commissioners are scheduled to vote on Oct. 20 on a lease agreement for a water park slated to be built right at that spot, citing the potential for economic development and jobs, and the fact that the project was already approved by a county vote in 2006. Activists are stepping up the fight, using the recent study and concerns about the legality of the project to push for a delay of the vote until all data identifying significant use of the site by endangered species are considered.
“We fear that the development of this area will lead to the bat’s extinction,” said Paola Ferreira, executive director of Tropical Audubon Society.
The conservation group sent a letter to Miami-Dade commissioners on Thursday asking them to direct staff to reevaluate the proposed Miami Wilds project and determine whether it complies with the will of the voters and the Endangered Species Act, among other considerations.
In a 2006 referendum county voters said yes to further development of the zoo facilities as long as that took place “on land that is not environmentally sensitive and is outside the animal attractions.”
For Michael Daulton, executive director of Bat Conservation International, the fact that bonneted bats make “heavy, frequent use” of the parking lot is reason enough to consider the area environmentally sensitive.
In addition to the cute bat that gets its name from the large ears that make it look like it’s wearing a bonnet, three other endangered species have been documented using that same habitat: the iridescent Miami Tiger beetle, the bright orange Florida Leafwing and the gray Bartram’s Hairstreak, whose wings have thin white and black lines with tiny splashes of rust.
“I don’t know how else to emphasize this: the area isn’t just an empty parking lot. It’s essential for the survival of the bonneted bat, and for the recovery of other endangered species,” Daulton said. He said the recent study showed that the endangered bat prefers open areas rather than more cluttered environments like the zoo itself.
Activists say commissioners haven’t taken into account recent studies on the bats, beetle and butterflies, and urged the county to review the data and discuss with the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service additional surveys.
“In its current proposed form, the Miami Wilds project would lease land on environmentally sensitive land, which has not been authorized by the voters and is therefore contrary to Article 6 of the County Charter,” Ferreira and Daulton said in the co-signed letter to commissioners.
The $120 million, 40-year lease agreement for Miami Wilds was approved by the county’s Parks, Recreation, and Cultural Affairs Committee last month. It includes a water park, a 200-room hotel and shops.
After this story was published online, Miami-Dade’s Parks, Recreation and Open Spaces department’s director Maria Nardi said that 40 acres will remain undeveloped at Zoo Miami’s parking lot, as only 27.5 acres are proposed for the water park.
She also said there is no data to support the statement that the park will lead bonneted bats to extinction, as scientific evidence shows they can be found in other areas in Miami-Dade. She also said there are fiscal benefits to placing Miami Wilds at that spot and not somewhere else in the county.
“One of the benefits is that 50% of the projected revenue of $120.7 million dollars will go toward capital improvements at the zoo, and 10% of that, or about $6 million, will go toward restoration of adjacent pine rocklands,“ Nardi told the Miami Herald. “That will benefit all species that use the habitat.” She said the $6 million would be triple the current budget for pine rockland maintenance and restoration.
Developers and the county are still working on an estimated entrance fee for the planned park that includes an artificial beach and was downsized from a much larger original project that was designed as a theme park featuring rides based on 20th Century Fox movies such as Rio and Ice Age. Plans were scaled down over the years to consider environmental concerns and specifically the endangered species that are known to use that habitat.
Opposition to the project has gained strength in recent weeks, with activists questioning not only the potential environmental threats but also the financial assumptions made about the proposed water park. The last financial analysis of the Miami Wilds proposal was made in 2018, before the COVID-19 pandemic completely changed the outlook for the hospitality industry, said Dennis Olle, an attorney and member of the Miami Chapter of the North American Butterfly Association.
“Prudence dictates that this analysis be updated before any binding vote is taken by the Commission,” Olle wrote in a letter to Commissioner Rebeca Sosa.
The 2018 analysis contains questionable assumptions like higher than average Zoo Miami attendance and “aspirational” hotel occupancy forecasts and estimates of revenue per available room that don’t match actual industry data, Olle said in the letter.
Paul Lambert of Lambert Advisory, the developer spearheading the project, said it will take at least three years for the park to be ready once the project is approved, enough time for the local economy to recover from the COVID-19 crisis. He said investors see no need to revise the revenue estimate or the forecast that Miami Wilds will create around 400 jobs once it’s fully operational.
The City of South Miami has joined Kendall in asking the county to find a new location for the project in south Dade, and Florida International University students have organized a petition calling on commissioners to delay Tuesday’s vote.
Abigail Merolle, an environmental studies student at FIU who’s leading the movement, invited hundreds of fellow students to a Zoom conference on Saturday to hear about the importance of preserving the area from key experts and prepare public comments for the commission meeting.
“This is one of the last strongholds for these critically endangered bats, and preserving that area benefits the environment and the community in a much more significant way than any water park ever will,” she said.