Tequila production can make or break the lesser long-nosed bat population

October 30, 2017, 10:16 a.m.

When environmentalists and industry leaders come together for conservation, amazing things happen. Take, for instance, the case of the lesser long-nosed bat.

This species was once close to extinction. Because it's a nectar-eating species and thus critical for pollination of plants such as agave (the plant used to make tequila) it's plight was the worry of not only biologists and conservationists but also tequila producers.

These groups have combined efforts over the course of 30 years, and the species is finally back to a point where it may be removed from the endangered species list — a first for a bat species. This AP story in the Farmington Daily Times puts the numbers into perspective:

Federal officials said it has taken 30 years of conservation efforts by biologists and volunteers in Mexico and the U.S. as well as tequila producers in Mexico to rebuild a healthy population. There were once thought to be fewer than 1,000 lesser long-nosed bats in 14 known roosts throughout the region. Now, there are about 200,000 of the nectar-feeding animals and dozens of roost sites.

Still, the bats aren't out of the woods yet. "The tequila industry has seen a 60 percent growth over the past 10 years," Mike Daulton, the executive director of Bat Conservation International, tells NPR. "At the super-premium level, where you're spending $30 a bottle or more, it's more like 400 percent growth. And that means you have to grow a lot of agave."

With the increased demand comes industrial agave farming, where major tequila companies use cloned agave plants. They're cheaper and easier to grow, NPR reports, but it means less nectar and fewer plants in the bats' natural ecosystem.

Bats are an under-appreciated pollinator. "In North American deserts, giant cacti and agave depend on bats for pollination, while tropical bats pollinate incredible numbers of plants," explains Bat Conservation International.

So next time you sip a fine tequila, raise your glass to a bat. And if you want to help bats in the process, look for brands that are part of the Tequila Interchange Project, a coalition of bartenders, scientists and industry professionals who work to make tequila production more sustainable and promote bat-friendly brands.

Editor's note: This story has been updated since it was originally published in January 2017.