1 Million Agave: Ambitious Binational Restoration Plan To Plant Agave, Protect Bats

By Kendal Blust
Published: Friday, October 25, 2019 - 5:05am
Updated: Monday, October 28, 2019 - 2:38pm

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agave planting
Kendal Blust/KJZZ
A volunteer plants agave in Parque La Colorada in Álamos, Sonora, on Oct. 4, 2019, as part of an ambitious effort to plant 1 million agave in the U.S. and Mexico in the next 10 years.

Shovels in hand, dozens of volunteers peeled back layers of bright green undergrowth and drying grasses at Parque La Colorada in Álamos, Sonora.

Dripping with sweat on this humid, October afternoon, they carefully planted small agave seedlings one-by-one along the park’s main trail.

walking into Parque la Colorada
Kendal Blust/KJZZ
Volunteers walk into Parque La Colorada on Oct. 4, 2019, to plant agave.

It’s part of Bat Conservation International's ambition plan to plant 1 million agave in the U.S and Mexico in the next 10 years.

"Reforestation is hard, difficult work," said David Gastelum, a leader of the Hermosillo-based Colectivo Sonora Silvestre, which is heading up agave restoration efforts in Sonora. "And it's work nobody is doing in Sonora, but it's a real issue. We can see the shortage of agave here."

He said the spine-tipped, blue-green agave has an important cultural and ecological place in the Arizona-Sonora borderlands.

Sonora’s agave distillate Bacanora depends the sugary plant. And so do pollinators, like the nectar feeding lesser long-nosed bat, that summers in Sonora and southern Arizona, and the endangered Mexican long-nosed bat that migrates farther east into New Mexico and Texas.

Bats As Pollinators

The lesser long-nosed bat, which was recently had its endangered status removed, was the "guest species" at this year's Jaguar Day Festival in Álamos.

While kids were doing bat crafts at a bat workshop during the festival, Catherine Bartlett and Robin Kropp with the Arizona-Sonora Desert Museum showed me the "bat machine."

bat crafts
Kendal Blust/KJZZ
Kids made bat crafts during a bat workshop at the Jaguar Day Festival in Álamos, Sonora, on Oct. 5, 2019.

“This is how a bat hears on the bat’s frequency," Bartlett told me. The machine made an echoey, scratchy noise as she rubbed her finger together. “So that’s how they can hear like a scorpion walking along and hunting.”

Nectar feeding bats, like the lesser long-nosed bat, are important Sonoran Desert pollinators.

“Well this is the cool story, because they are pollinators of our big columnar cactus," Kropp said.

Those are saguaros and organ pipe cactus the bats visit during their migration north from central and southern Mexico each summer.

Most of the migrating bats are pregnant females looking for so-called maternity caves in this region before they head back south with their babies.

On their southbound journey, bats rely on agave flowers.

But the succulents are in short supply.

Agave Shortage

There are many reasons for the agave shortage: habitat loss, climate change.

"But the reduction in wild agave populations is mainly because of illegal harvesting," said Gastelum, of the Colectivo Sonora Silvestre.

agave roots
Kendal Blust/KJZZ
Agave roots, ready to be planted.

Growing demand for agave spirits in the United States and beyond has raised issues of agave sustainability throughout Mexico.

But unlike tequila and other mezcals, bacanora production was prohibited for 77 years, until 1992. So clandestine bacanora makers relied on unregulated wild agave harvesting.

“When people are harvesting agaves in the wild, these aren’t agaves that have already flowered and the bats have already taken their fill of them. They’re plants that they have to get before they flower," said Francesca Claverie, nursery manager for Borderlands Restoration Network, which is working on agave restoration in Arizona, and supporting the Colectivo Sonora Sivlestre in Sonora.

Claverie said agave hearts, or piñas, spend years building up sugars that make delicious spirits. Those sugars are released when the agave shoots up its towering stock, which only flowers once in the plant’s lifetime. It takes years — decades for some agave species — to flower. By then, the agave is no good for bacanora.

And when agave aren't allowed to flower, bats go hungry.

Bats, Agave And Bacanora

Bacanora production has been a main culprit in agave loss, but it’s also part of the solution, said Lea Ibarra, another leader of the Colectivo Sonora Silvestre.

“They are like a key in the project, the bacanora producers," she said. "They're already thinking about agave sustainability, and they know it's important."

Agave plants
Kendal Blust/KJZZ
Agave ready to be planted.

The collective is working with bacanora producers to allow more agave to flower.

“We get the better part of the deal anyway," said Rodrigo Bojorquez, a bacanora producer in southern Sonora and chairman of the board of the company Dalumoro, which has been growing agave in Sonora since 2010.

He said bats are the agave’s best pollinators and improve the plant’s genetic diversity.

“I don't think you can have one without the other," he said. "If we want to keep the bats around, we need the agave around. And if we want the agave around, we most certainly better take care of the bats.”

Back in Álamos, volunteers water each of the newly planted agaves — nearly 400 of them.

Colectivo Sonora Silvestre has planted almost 700 agave so far and hopes to reach 1,000 by the end of the year. In Arizona, about 2,000 seedlings have been planted as part of the project.

That’s just a drop in the bucket compared to the 1-million-agave goal. But Valeria Cañedo of Colectivo Sonora Silvestre said the idea is to rebuild pockets of agave along the bat’s migration trail over time.

“We're providing them the gas, the fuel they need," she said. "It will be like way stations for them. They can stop, they can eat a little bit, they can rest, and they can continue with their travel."

And in the long run, those well-fed bats will be the ones propagating and protecting the agaves.