WASHINGTON— Some of the world’s leading bat biologists are among more than 80 scientists who sent a letter today calling for the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service and Interior Department to move forward with last year’s proposal to give critically imperiled northern long-eared bats the full protection of the Endangered Species Act. An invasive fungal disease called white-nose syndrome has devastated the bat species, causing a decline of 99 percent in its core range. But scientists are concerned the Service will capitulate to heavy lobbying by industry, state natural-resources agencies and conservative politicians and protect the bat only as “threatened” rather than “endangered,” which could open the door to ongoing logging, mining and other habitat destruction.
“It is imperative that the northern long-eared bat receive the strongest protection possible, as an endangered, and not threatened, species,” said Rick Adams, a professor and bat ecologist in the School of Biological Sciences at University of Northern Colorado. “This bat species, like others, has a low reproductive rate and cannot bounce back quickly from a major loss, so it will be extremely vulnerable to other threats for decades to come, even if we eventually find a cure for white-nose syndrome.”
Since the disease first appeared in a cave near Albany in 2006, white-nose syndrome has spread to 25 states and five Canadian provinces, killing bats of six different species. In 2012 the Fish and Wildlife Service estimated that nearly 7 million bats had died as a result of the malady. The northern long-eared bat has been the most severely affected species, and in the Northeast has nearly disappeared. Its numbers are now dropping dramatically in other states, including Virginia, where summer surveys show the species declining by over 96 percent. Scientists fear that the syndrome will eventually spread throughout North America, potentially affecting western-dwelling bat species.
This past summer, in the wake of opposition to the bat’s listing as endangered, the Fish and Wildlife Service postponed its final decision until April 2015. Representatives of the timber, oil and gas, and mining industry, among others, have complained vocally about the potential effects of the bat’s listing on their business operations. There is a mounting concern that the Fish and Wildlife Service will decide to list the bat as threatened instead of endangered, and at the same time craft what is known as a “special rule” to exempt logging and other habitat destroying activities. The agency has taken similar action for other species, such as the lesser prairie chicken and Gunnison sage grouse, when faced with political opposition. But leading scientists agree that the bat needs the full protection of the Endangered Species Act, including protection from ongoing habitat destruction, if it is to survive white-nose syndrome.
“The Fish and Wildlife Service used the best available science to make its recommendation to protect the northern long-eared bat as endangered,” said Allen Kurta, a professor of biology at Eastern Michigan University who has been studying bats for four decades. “The only thing that has changed since the initial recommendation is that more bats in more states have died.”
Northern long-eared bats have been documented in 38 states, including most eastern states and a few western states such as South Dakota and Nebraska, where the bats’ distribution is extremely patchy and overall numbers are relatively low. The species’ stronghold had been the Northeast, where its numbers have plummeted as a result of white-nose syndrome. Only the western states and Canadian provinces are still unaffected by the fungal epidemic, and most researchers expect these regions will eventually become infected, as well.
“Top experts on bats and white-nose syndrome are telling the government to hurry up and do what it has already concluded must be done: protect the northern long-eared bat as endangered and save it from extinction,” said Mollie Matteson, a senior scientist at the Center for Biological Diversity.
The Fish and Wildlife Service is taking public comments on the proposed bat listing until Dec. 18.