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Austin bat expert says a City bat biologist is necessary

A local bat expert and conservationists say hiring a bat biologist for the City of Austin is necessary for the bat colonies to survive.

AUSTIN, Texas — The bat population has a long history in Austin, with around 1.5 million of them residing under the Ann Richards Congress Avenue Bridge.

Without someone whose job it is to make sure City decisions are made with bats in mind, experts worry the colonies may suffer. Not only do the bats bring in millions of dollars in tourism to Austin, but they also eat large amounts of insects, which keeps the city safe from pesticides.

Merlin Tuttle, bat expert and founder of Merlin Tuttle’s Bat Conservation, has worked with National Geographic, the BBC and even the Smithsonian, documenting his studies and conservation efforts.  

"The bats are an absolutely essential resource that we should be paying a lot more attention to and should have paid a lot more attention to many years,” Tuttle said.

Tuttle has studied bats worldwide for more than 60 years and has been the Austin bats' primary support for over 30 years. Tuttle said having someone dedicated to making sure the bats are taken into consideration with any City decisions is necessary.

"I'm happy to advise somebody, but the problem is there isn't anybody to advise,” Tuttle said. “We have to have somebody whose job it is to listen to expert opinions and take actions as needed."

The Austin Animal Commission recently recommended hiring a bat biologist, also known as a chiropterologist. The biologist's role would be to monitor the Mexican free-tailed bats living under the Congress Avenue Bridge and the tricolored bats living in caves. The full-time employee would also focus on possible dangers for bats, including future construction projects.

“The chiropterologist would monitor the bats under the Congress Avenue Bridge to make recommendations and be there to consult about the I-35,” said Craig Nazor, former chair of the Austin Animal Advisory Commission. “There’d be a City person to consult about how the best way to change those bridges over without killing a lot of bats.”

Local bat conservationists, like Austin Bat Refuge Manager Lee Mackenzie, are eager to have someone to advise.

"We look forward to working with the biologists on collaborate on collaboration and promoting peaceful coexistence with our urban bat population,” Mackenzie said.

The City is looking for someone with at least a Master's degree in mammalogy. If the recommendation for the position gets passed in the city council's budget in August, a full-time bat biologist could be hired by the end of the year.

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