PALM HARBOR — At a meeting of the county's Environmental Science Forum in early December, members had a question for the county:
Why wasn't the advisory group on parks and environmental lands consulted before bats were removed from a Palm Harbor overpass?
Barbara Hoffman, an environmentalist and forum member, said she was frustrated that the county was so quick to have a colony of Brazilian free-tailed bats on the Pinellas Trail removed. The county listened to people who complained about the bats' odor, but those who watched with wonder as the small furry mammals emerged at dusk had no voice in the county's decision.
"I probably didn't take into consideration enough those silent folks who appreciate the bats," Paul Cozzie, the county's culture, education and leisure director, said last week. "It was just one of those things that made us stop and think."
Cozzie had come to the forum to talk about plans for Wall Springs Park, but shifted to bats. The county had faced an issue with bats at another Pinellas Trail underpass near Park Boulevard in Seminole. Residents there were concerned when the animals were excluded while the structure was repaired.
Cozzie and forum members came up with some ideas:
• Create a procedure on bats in public places with help from bat experts
• Use education as a means of handling bat issues
• Let the public know when a bat relocation is pending
• Before bats are moved, make sure they have replacement habitat
Last week, Cozzie said the county is working with the Pinellas County Extension and the Florida Bat Conservancy to develop a bat policy. Public education will be a big part of it, and he hopes it will allow park users and bats to coexist.
"There's a lot of myth about bats, and we want to separate fact from fiction in that educational component," he said.
The educational material will address concerns about rabies and other health issues, he said, that may be overblown.
"We want to provide for people's personal safety," he said, "but at the same time, the bats do provide a lot of benefits."
Only half of 1 percent of bats in Florida have rabies, and those prefer to go off on their own to die, said Jeanne Murphy, who was the county's wildlife biologist before her position was eliminated in 2008. She said bats are great insect controllers, eating about their weight in insects each night.
Cozzie is enthusiastic about an idea for the Palm Harbor underpass: a big, new bat house in addition to the small ones already up.
The new bat house would be nearby in Wall Springs Park and similar to one at the University of Florida that houses an estimated 100,000 bats. That one is 18 by 18 feet. The county is looking at a similar model from the Florida Bat Conservancy with walls that are 8 by 8 feet.
"It looks kind of like a house, but it has all these baffles that the bats crawl up in and feel secure," Cozzie said.
County carpenters are drawing up a list of materials and estimating the cost.
Hoffman would rather the county remove the screens that keep the bats out of a habitat perfect for them. But she's grateful that the county is working on a new bat policy and preparing to build a big bat house.
"I'm so happy," she said Wednesday. "The best thing would be to rip those things out of the tunnel, but this is the next best thing."
Not that she is letting down her guard on the bat house.
"It's not up yet," she said. "Until it's in place, we need to make sure the project keeps moving along."
Theresa Blackwell can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or (727) 445-4170.