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White-nose syndrome is killing Pa. bats

A northern long-eared bat shows symptoms of white-nose syndrome. The disease is killing bats that live in Pennsylvania and 37 other states, but business representatives who testified at a federal hearing in Harrisburg on Monday are opposed to adding the bat to the Endangered Species Act. Photo courtesy of the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service. (Photo by Steve Taylor; University of Illinois)
Nobody at a Monday hearing disagreed that the fungal disease 'white-nose syndrome' is killing northern long-eared bats at an alarming rate.
Even Rep. Jeffrey Pyle, R-Armstrong, who's opposed to listing the bat, compared the epidemic to a "biblical plague."
But he and others have taken a stand against listing the bat on the federalEndangered Species Act, saying it would create a "profound regulatory burden" to Pennsylvania and the 37 other states included in the bat's range.
Pyle and six other witnesses testified at a U.S. House Natural Resources Committee hearing in Harrisburg on Monday to speak against listing the bat.
All but two of the invited witnesses were special interest groups representing industries, including oil and gas, foresters, farmers, miners, and electricity suppliers.
The sole scientific voice in the hearing was Mollie Matteson, a senior scientist at theCenter for Biological Diversity, a nonprofit organization that advocates for endangered species.
In 2010, the group petitioned the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service to request that the northern long-eared bat and eastern small-footed bat be listed as threatened or endangered.
The Service determined no listing was necessary for the eastern small-footed bat, but in 2013 published a proposal to list the northern long-eared bat, said Service spokeswoman Meagan Racey.
The Service has until April in 2015 to decide whether to list the bat, but it wasn't invited to be part of the hearing, Racey said.
Committee spokesman Michael Tadeo said the hearing was held to give non-federal witnesses an opportunity to provide their input.
Businesses don't want more rules
Industry representatives testified that their industries do come in contact with bats, but they said regulations placed on their activities wouldn't do anything to save the animal; scientists have attributed the dwindling population to the disease, not an industry behavior.
Union County famer Jim Brubaker, a board member of the Pennsylvania Farm Bureau, said bats roost in trees, snags, and in buildings such as those used in farming operations.
The Endangered Species Act listing could restrict farmers' abilities to apply pesticide, harvest timber, and otherwise impede their livelihoods, he said.
Committee chairman Rep. Doc Hastings, who's from Washington, said the 1990 'threatened' listing of the northern spotted owl has severely hampered the timber industry in that state.
Speaking for the Pennsylvania Forest Products Association, executive director Paul Lyskava said the long-eared bat is "our spotted owl moment."
Timber harvesting and other foresting activities aren't causing the sharp decline in bat population, and he's concerned that possible restrictions on logging in some protected zones would decimate an industry that employs about 60,000 Pennsylvanians, he said.
Representing the Pennsylvania Rural Electric Association, spokesman Russ Biggica warned that bats could impede the delivery of electric service to homes because bats occupy areas where electric utility workers might have to remove trees and limbs.
The listing might be the bat's only chance 
Plummeting populations over the past eight years, since the first case of white-nose syndrome in North America was documented in 2006, have put the northern long-eared bat on the "fast track" to extinction, Matteson testified.
The population in the northeast has declined by an estimated 99 percent, she said.
But she said scientists recognized the species as vulnerable to several threats, including habitat loss, even before the disease started spreading.
Adding the bat to the Endangered Species list is the best and perhaps only means to prevent the extinction of an animal that saves farmers billions of dollars in crop protection by eating insects such as moths and beetles, she said.
But hearing attendees, including Rep. Scott Perry, R-York County, questioned whether Matteson's science was substantial, relevant, and accurate enough to add the bat to the list and compel regulations.
"Instead of first focusing on mitigating the bat-caused disease, the Service issued guidance which focused on ensuring that every human-related activity that could possibly interfere or disturb hibernating bats is regulated or restricted," he said.
Those recommendations include restrictions on tree-clearing and noise disturbances within certain radii of the bats, as well as restrictions of prescribed burning and the application of pesticides and herbicides, he said.
One recommendation prohibits removing bats from occupied structures, which could cause trouble for people who, like him, have woken up to find a bat flying around in their bedroom.
"You and the bat are going to coexist in the house," he said.

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