Environmentalists Say Miami Wilds Water Park Project Violates Federal Law

One of the nation’s most endangered bat species lives in and around Zoo Miami and relies on the zoo parking lot to find food, but developers want to build a water park on the zoo grounds, possibly violating the Endangered Species Act.

Miami-Dade County officials will meet tomorrow to discuss the Miami Wilds project, a plan to create a water park in the overflow area of the Zoo Miami parking lot. The project is projected to provide about $120 million in revenue for the county over the next 40 years, but international animal conservationists oppose it, alleging it will break federal law.

Last week, two animal-advocacy groups, Bat Conservation International and the Center for Biological Diversity, issued statements blasting the proposed attraction, calling it reckless and citing concerns about the critically endangered Florida bonneted bat.

The project calls for seven water slides, three kid-friendly attractions, a lazy river, a wave pool, and a family-friendly hotel to be constructed on the paved, overflow parking area of Zoo Miami, according to the project proposal New Times obtained via a public-records request.

Originally imagined as a much larger, Universal Studios-like theme park built in Miami’s globally imperiled Richmond Pine Rocklands, Miami Wilds scaled down to its current proposed size after concerns over the endangered Miami tiger beetle arose around 2014. The rare insect makes its home in that habitat.

Now, developer Miami Wilds LLC and county commissioner Dennis Moss are pushing for the much smaller project to be approved by the county’s Parks, Recreation, and Cultural Affairs Committee and then by the full commission, without providing a four-week advance notice to the public. Moss moved to get the project approved and pushed past the committee back in July, but that effort fell through.

A recent site map for Miami Wilds Park.

A recent site map for Miami Wilds Park.

Image by Miami Wilds Park

A species native to South Florida, the bonneted bat has seen its habitats destroyed by development for years, leaving only a handful of counties where the animals can safely roost, according to the Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission.

In 2019, Zoo Miami partnered with Bat Conservation International to study the bonneted bat and built bat houses around the zoo property for the creatures to roost during the day.

Jennifer Stern, a natural areas manager for the county, tells New Times that none of the bat houses are occupied by bonneted bats at the present time.

The conservationists beg to differ.

“That’s just not true,” counters Mike Daulton, executive director of Bat Conservation International (BCI). “Both BCI and Zoo Miami have up-to-the-minute data showing that there’s consistent roosting by the bonneted bat. I even saw them with my own eyes in February.”

Videos from BCI reviewed by New Times show bonneted bats present in the bat houses as recently as late 2019. Daulton says he and his group use bat detectors that pick up on the unique chirps that bats use for echolocation, and they detected bonneted bats flying over the proposed development area nearly every night for several months last year.

The Zoo Miami website advertises the zoo’s efforts to house bonneted bats on the property, highlighting that it has 30 bat houses on the property and showing videos of the endangered species in the roosting in the houses.

Paul Lambert, a partner and manager of Miami Wilds LLC, tells New Times he feels comfortable that the project won’t cause any environmental problems and won’t harm the bonneted bat. Lambert notes that the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service (FWS) released a proposed critical-habitat map for the bat earlier this year, and the map does not include the Zoo Miami grounds.

The proposed map, which FWS posted in June, carves out four critical habitats around the state that would be federally protected under the Endangered Species Act. The proposed unit in Miami-Dade County lies largely to the west of Krome Avenue and south of Tamiami Trail, well out of the way of the water-park site.

The map is still in draft format, however. FWS accepted comments on the proposal through mid-August and received almost 500 responses, including one from BCI.

“The map is in draft, and we don’t know where they’re gonna land. This area is a foraging area for the bonneted bat. We’ve emphasized this, including on comments for that critical habitat proposal,” Daulton says.

Daulton argues that much of the zoo property is essential for the species, citing a 2012 study from Zoo Miami’s own conservation staff. The study found that the parking-lot area Miami Wilds would occupy is a foraging hotspot.

“Important foraging locations for [the bat] are the large parking lot at Zoo Miami, the southernmost lake on Zoo Miami property…. [They] appear to prefer large unobstructed areas in which to forage with lengths greater than 1500 ft and widths at least 125-150ft,” the study found. (A PDF of the study is posted at the bottom of this article.)

Stern, Miami-Dade’s natural areas manager, says the county is conducting a series of surveys under the guidance of FWS to determine the presence of bonneted bats and other endangered species in the proposed development area. She adds that the county will ensure it takes ecologically sensitive steps in any development near sensitive species.

“Any of the lighting will be dark sky lighting. Noise and light will be limited to Association of Zoos & Aquariums standards, and native vegetation will be planted out there,” Stern says.

Still, Daulton argues that the project shouldn’t break ground without proper assessment of the presence of one of Florida’s most endangered species, one that plays an important role in the ecosystem by pollinating plants and acting as natural pest control by virtue of its insect-heavy diet.

“We believe approval of this project is at best premature and is likely violating federal Endangered Species Act,” Daulton says. “We’re making our voice heard and make sure commissioners are aware this is a serious environmental impact.”