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Animal Advisory Commission asks for city bat biologist

Friday, March 17, 2023 by Ava Garderet

The Animal Advisory Commission has approved a recommendation that the city hire a bat biologist to manage and provide expertise on the various bat populations in Austin, including the popular colony under the Congress Avenue Bridge.

“Bats are an extraordinarily important part of our ecosystem,” Commissioner Paige Nilson said during a meeting Monday. 

With bats declining in population worldwide, a bat biologist would play a vital role in surveying the needs of Austin’s bat community, Nilson said.

“We especially need help with the surveillance of fungal diseases affecting bats,” Nilson said. “And the biologist could help make sure our city is optimizing its resources to support their ecosystem.” 

Habitat loss and white-nose syndrome are the most dire threats to the bat populations across the United States, and the animals have been officially declared endangered in Texas.

Some commissioners raised concerns about the process for handling rabid bats, and how that would intersect with the role of the city’s bat biologist.

Don Bland, chief animal services officer at the Austin Animal Center, clarified that under state law, all rabid animals are required to be sent to the city animal shelter. That is where the city’s head veterinarian, who also is designated as the city’s rabies authority, works.

As things stand, an animal protection officer, or APO, is responsible for picking up and taking rabid animals to the shelter. But if the bat biologist opted to go through training to meet the qualifications of an APO, they could perform the same functions.

The commission also debated whether to designate a full-time staff position for the role or amend the proposition to read, “by hire/contract.”

Craig Nazor, former chair of the commission, said the position should be full-time, due to the large number of responsibilities for a bat biologist and the dearth of “chiropterologists” (those who study bats) for hire in Austin.

Nazor also suggested that the job would interest students of chiropterology, enabling the city to involve the younger generation of Austinites in an important community issue. 

The commission decided that the bat biologist would be most effective as a full-time position, approving the resolution that recommended its creation by unanimous vote.

With an estimated 1.5 million bats congregating under the Congress Avenue Bridge, Austin hosts the largest urban bat colony in the world.

The roosting began in the early 1980s, when a renovation transformed the bridge into an ideal bat cave for migrating Mexican free-tailed bats. Since then, spotting them has become an international tourist attraction for Austin, bringing an average of 140,000 people to the city each year.

Not only are the bats popular, but they play an essential role in natural functions, such as pest control, plant pollination and seed dispersion. Their affinity for bugs saves the U.S. agriculture industry more than $3 billion each year in crop damage and pesticide costs, and they also provide critical pollination for a variety of popular fruits. 

Photo made available through a Creative Commons license.

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