$20 million deal will keep development away from Comal County bat cave

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A giant Hill Country bat cave has been spared nearby development that bat experts feared would distress the famed flying night-stalkers.

A coalition that includes Austin-based Bat Conservation International, the Nature Conservancy, and the city of San Antonio could finalize a $20.5 million deal this week that would take 1,500 acres of land next to the Bracken Cave Preserve in Comal County out of a San Antonio developer’s hands and keep it as open space.

With bats and water resources at stake on a piece of land in a fast-growing area near a major city, the deal is being touted as the kind of multiagency, big-money partnership Texas will increasingly see in the future.

Biologists and conservationists had worried a development with as many as 3,000 homes could disrupt, and even kill, some of the bats from Bracken Cave, an hour southwest of Austin and which hosts the world’s largest maternal bat colony and is owned by Bat Conservation International.

The San Antonio City Council will vote Thursday whether to approve the deal. The conservation groups would own the land, and San Antonio would own a conservation easement that disallows development of the property. City officials say that move will enhance water quality and water quantity in the Edwards Aquifer, the giant underground waterway that is the chief source of San Antonio’s drinking water.

The groups became involved after they learned San Antonio developer Brad Galo had planned to sell the tract to a Dallas-based developer for a subdivision. That deal eventually fell through, opening the way for the conservation-minded coalition.

Because the subdivision would be in the flight path for the bats, which can number as many as 15 million at the height of summer, and because it is foraging ground for bat pups, “we knew there would be a constant interaction of people and bats, and that that would ultimately backfire on the bats,” said Bat Conservation International Executive Director Andrew Walker.

The bats that arrive at Bracken in the spring from points south are at least 95 percent female, Walker said. In June, they give birth, teaching their pups to forage and fly before they return south.

Walker said the bats at Bracken eat at least 100 tons of insects nightly, saving farmers from pests and homeowners from bites.

The preserve, which requires an authorized guide for visitors to enter the land, sits on 700 brush country acres. The proposed development would have been built less than a mile from the cave.

A message left for Galo wasn’t returned.

Beyond protection of the bats, the land purchase ensures the protection of Edwards Aquifer water and endangered songbird habitat, said Laura Huffman, director of the Nature Conservancy’s Texas office.

“This is an excellent example of the sort of urban conservation you’re going to see in the future, with several goals met in a fast-growing part of the state,” she said. But meeting those goals involved “scaled-up investments” because the land is in great demand, requiring this sort of coalition.

“From a conservation perspective, no one entity could have done this alone — it’s too expensive and complicated,” said Huffman.

San Antonio will dig into an Edwards Aquifer protection fund for $5 million. Another $5 million comes from a real estate company in exchange for greater development rights on another piece of Edwards Aquifer land; the two conservation groups raised another $5 million; other groundwater and federal agencies also chipped in cash. The conservation groups aim to raise roughly $5 million more in coming years to pay off a loan to cover the rest of the purchase.

“This primarily is a water preservation effort,” said San Antonio City Council Member Ron Nirenberg. “It’s about preserving Texas Hill Country heritage, about working together to protect those very sacred things.”

Source: Austin American Statesman

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