By Shawn Perich
Will a tiny bat, smaller than a house wren, become Minnesota’s version of the spotted owl? That’s a question some members of the timber industry are asking as the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service considers listing the northern long-eared bat as a threatened or endangered species. At a recent meeting of the Minnesota Forest Resources Council (full disclosure: I represent game species organizations as a council member) staff from the USFWS and the Minnesota DNR presented information about the bat and why it is being considered for endangered species protection.
The northern long-eared bat is found in 39 states, including Minnesota, which has a population roughly estimated at 10,000. It is one of four Minnesota bat species that hibernate in caves and mines, known as hibernacula, during the winter. During the summer months, northern long-eared bats roost in tree cavities or loose bark, which is where they raise their young. The bat pups are flightless for the first three weeks of life.
In the northeastern U.S., northern long-eared bat populations have been devastated by white-nose syndrome, a disease caused by a white fungus that afflicts bats in hibernacula. The disease was first discovered in a New York cave in 2006. Originating in Europe, it is believed the fungus was brought to this country on the clothing or gear of cavers. It quickly spread to other hibernacula in the Northeast and is now documented as far west as Wisconsin. The fungus causes bats to rouse from hibernation and fly about, even in midwinter, using up their energy reserves. Bats with white-nose syndrome may freeze or starve, due to cold conditions and the lack of insects to eat during winter. Over 5.5 million bats have been killed by the disease in the Northeast with losses reaching 99 percent in some locales for northern long-eared bats.
The bats’ precipitous decline led the Center for Biological Diversity to petition the USFWS for endangered species listing in 2010 for the northern long-eared bat and the eastern small-footed bat. In 2013, the USFWS determined that listing was unwarranted for the eastern small-footed bat, but proposed listing the northern long-eared bat. A final decision is scheduled for October, 2014, but will likely be delayed until April 2015.
The delay is due concerns from various interests regarding the proposed conservation measures for protecting long-eared bats, which have the potential to affect everyone from loggers and foresters to farmers, road crews, developers and even suburbanites with backyard projects. During the summer breeding season, proposed conservation measures include limits on cutting trees greater than 3 inches in diameter, limits on herbicide and pesticide use, limits on bridge and culvert work, and limits on land-clearing work that removes trees.
Since relatively little is known about northern long-eared bats, the proposed conservation measures are broad-based, rather than focused on specific habitat. As a result, the state DNRs of Minnesota, Wisconsin and Michigan sent a joint letter to the USFWS in April expressing concerns about overly restrictive and unrealistic conservation guidance. They requested an opportunity to provide state input to future guidance and a delay in the listing decision. In May, several states met twice with USFWS to discuss the issues.
A challenge facing Minnesota and other states is locating northern long-eared bats and identifying their preferred summer habitat. Beginning in June, the DNR is initiating cooperative research projects at Camp Ripley and in the Superior National Forest to test and refine methods for finding summer habitat. The DNR also has an LCCMR research proposal to survey for northern long-eared bats in Minnesota forests. Once the DNR begins gathering basic data about the species it can develop a habitat conservation plan to comply with the federal guidance.
Given the rapid spread of white-nose syndrome and its devastation of bats, it is almost certain the northern long-eared bats will be listed as either threatened or endangered. If they are listed as threatened, the state can conduct activities within habitat, such as logging, that might result in the incidental loss or “take” of bats. If the bats are listed as endangered, the state must demonstrate how its habitat conservation plan will mitigate the potential for killing bats due to activities such as logging and then can apply for an “incidental take permit” to allow those activities to occur.
State and federal wildlife officials believe many conservation measures are already in place, such as voluntary timber harvest guidelines, that will serve as mitigating strategies. They said efforts to protect endangered species rarely stop projects or activities. Minnesota has been involved in the successful recovery of two high-profile endangered species, the gray wolf and bald eagle, and is currently listed as providing critical habitat for Canada lynx. Meeting the requirements of the endangered species listing didn’t curtail other activities.
But timber industry leaders are wary of the listing process, because the federal listing of northern spotted owl in the Pacific Northwest and the red-cockaded woodpecker did result in significant changes for the industry. The difference was habitat loss due to logging was considered a primary reason those species were in decline. By contrast, the northern long-eared bat seems to be doing fine in existing habitat, including working forests. They are instead threatened by a rapidly spreading fungus.
Ironically, efforts to protect forest habitat for northern long-eared bats will do little to save the species if—or, more likely, when—the fungus causing white-nose syndrome shows up in the southeastern Minnesota caves or northern mines where bats hibernate. The disease is likely to be as devastating to Minnesota bats as it has been in the Northeast.
So what is the USFWS doing to address white-nose syndrome? Research is underway to learn more about the fungus, but at this point no one has developed a way to eradicate the fungus or to “cure” bats that contract white-nose syndrome. Given the way the fungus has quickly spread from one cave to the next, it is fair to say researchers haven’t yet determined an effective way to stop its state-to-state spread across the continent. All of this is a source of frustration for those who may be affected by the endangered species listing of the northern long-eared bat and likely other bat species in the future.