Federal wildlife officials on Wednesday released their final rule for protecting northern long-eared bats, a native Northland species facing massive population losses due to a deadly fungus.
The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service last April listed the northern long-eared bat as “threatened” under the federal Endangered Species Act, and Wednesday’s details are the final say in how the government plans to save the animal from decimation.
The problem is a fungus called white-nose syndrome that has already killed millions of bats in the eastern U.S. and Canada and has spread as far west as Minnesota, Wisconsin and Ontario.
The final rule is less restrictive than the interim rule announced in April for logging and other industries that need to cut down trees where the bats might be nesting.
The final rule will place some restrictions on logging in areas where bats are known to nest in June and July, but only in areas where white-nose syndrome has been confirmed.
“The overwhelming threat to the northern long-eared bat is white-nose syndrome,” said Dan Ashe, the agency’s director, in a statement. “Until there is a solution to the white-nose syndrome crisis, the outlook for this bat will not improve. This rule tailors regulatory protections in a way that makes sense and focuses protections where they will make a difference for the bat.”
In areas of the country affected by white-nose syndrome, which includes most of the Northland, incidental take (indirect harm of a bat or bat habitat) is prohibited if it occurs within a wintering hibernation site for the northern long-eared bat. It is also prohibited if it results from tree removal activities within a quarter-mile of a wintering site or from activities that cut down or destroy known occupied nesting trees, or any other trees within 150 feet of that maternity roost tree, during the pup-rearing season from June 1 through July 31.
Occupied roost trees may be removed when necessary to address a direct threat to human life and property. In other cases, a permit for incidental take may be needed.
White-nose syndrome originated in Europe and was first found in a New York cave in 2006. It has killed seven different species of bats and has now spread to 30 states. It has been found in the Soudan mine in northern Minnesota, where thousands of bats winter, but so far no dead bats have been found there. Dead bats have been found in wintering areas near Thunder Bay.
White-nose syndrome is named for the fuzzy white growth of fungus observed on the faces of infected bats. Those infected die from the disease, which causes wounds to the wing tissue as well as dehydration and starvation. It often first shows up as unusual behavior, such as flying during the day in summer or leaving caves during their usual winter hibernation, when no bugs are present for them to eat.
The disease has reduced bat populations by as much as 71 percent in states where it has struck, and in some cases killed nearly 100 percent of the bats in caves where the fungus has appeared. It’s possible some species could become “functionally extinct” within a few years, according to the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service.
It’s not clear how the disease has spread so quickly, but it’s believed that it was transmitted between bats and from one cave to another in the footwear or clothing of people who visit caves.
While trying to stop white-nose syndrome is the key to saving the species, bat supporters say the rules on habitat are necessary so the bats can recover if and when a cure is found — including limits on logging and other disruptions of wintering sites and nesting trees where female bats gather to each have one pup per summer.
Some $45 million in public and private funding has already been spent on trying to combat the disease.
“We are beginning to see glimmers of hope in the battle against white-nose syndrome,” Ashe said. “In just eight years, this disease, previously unknown to science, has been identified and its cause understood. A solution could soon be within our grasp.”
Preliminary results of a northern Minnesota study to determine the most favored roosting trees for northern long-eared bats show the females aren’t picky on tree type but prefer older trees with cavities and some decay.
The government so far has decided against the more restrictive “endangered” status for the bats but said Wednesday it could move to elevate the bat to endangered if their population continues to dwindle.