HOUSTON – The Texas Department of Criminal Justice is facing a unique challenge; one that involves hundreds of thousands of bats roosting in a decaying cotton warehouse across the street from the Huntsville prison unit.
TDCJ officials have spent years looking for ways to entice the colony to find other accommodations so the building can be torn down.
“It's in bad shape structurally,” said TDCJ facilities director Frank Inmon.
Inmon said the building has been condemned and TDCJ wanted to tear it down as far back as 2009.
“Here it is 2018 and we still have not taken it down,” said Inmon.
A small number of bats have been roosting in this warehouse since the late '90s. In the early 2000s a large fire heavily damaged the warehouse, causing it to be closed. In the time since, the bat colony grew exponentially.
What is preventing demolition is a bat colony made up of two subspecies of Tadarida brasiliensis, or Brazilian free-tailed bats. Texas Parks and Wildlife officials said the majority of the colony is comprised of a western subspecies known as Mexican free-tailed bats, with 10 percent of the colony made up of an eastern subspecies. Parks and Wildlife estimates 750,000 bats call the TDCJ warehouse home, making it the eighth-largest colony in the state.
The Mexican free-tailed bats migrate every winter, while their eastern cousins stay put.
You can watch KPRC’s video of bats emerging from the warehouse in October, after most of the colony migrated south.
TDCJ officials also shot video earlier this year when the entire colony was still in Huntsville.
Parks and Wildlife also snapped this picture from inside the warehouse when the full colony was in town.
Bats are protected in their natural habitats and in 1995, then-Gov. George W. Bush signed a resolution designating the Mexican free-tailed bat as the official flying mammal of Texas. Which brings us back to TDCJ’s dilemma.
“It was a surprise,” said Inmon. “We learned that since a large bat colony lives here, we can’t take the building down.”
Inmon said years of talks with conservationists and others about finding the funds needed to create of a new site for the bats never led to a solution. TDCJ then took matters into its own hands.
“I've been working for the agency for 33 years, I never once thought I would be working on a bat project,” said David Sweetin, TDCJ’s deputy director of facilities.
TDCJ erected four bat houses just across the street from the warehouse. The houses are based on a design from the University of Florida, which had an identical problem in the late '80s, early '90s. The university’s plan worked, but it took about three years for those bats to take to their new homes. You can read more about the University of Florida’s project here.
Each of TDCJ’s houses was built 17 feet off the ground to make it easy for the bats to fly in underneath and roost on rows of thin, wooden slats. Lipped concrete foundations will catch the guano and prevent runoff. Combined, the four houses can accommodate 800,000 bats.
“It's everything a bat would want,” said Sweetin.
Sweetin said each house costs nearly $8,000, but TDCJ only had to pay for materials. Sweetin said prisoners at the Gib Lewis prison unit in Woodville did all the work. That unit houses a vocational school. The houses were completed in March, but so far none of the bats have taken up residence.
“We've started looking around to see if we could locate a bat whisperer,” said Sweetin.
Officials with Parks and Wildlife tell KPRC they are optimistic that given enough time, the bats will migrate over to the new roosts. Inmon and Sweetin said they plan to meet again in November with officials from Parks and Wildlife, Bat Conservation International and Sam Houston State University to determine if anything else needs to be done to entice the colony to move out of the warehouse.
Until that happens, guards, prisoners and passersby can still marvel at a nightly escape from one of the prison system’s older buildings.
If you are interested in heading to some of Texas’ most popular bat-watching sites, you can find a map here.