TRAVERSE CITY, Mich. (AP) — The Biden administration declared the northern bat endangered on Tuesday in a last-ditch effort to save a species driven to the brink of extinction by white-nose syndrome, a fungal disease.
“White-nose syndrome is decimating cave bat species like the northern myotis at an unprecedented rate,” said Martha Williams, director of the US Fish and Wildlife Service.
The agency is “deeply committed to working with partners on a balanced approach that reduces disease impacts and protects survivors to recover northern bat populations,” she said.
First documented in the United States in 2006, the disease has infected 12 types of bats and killed millions. The northern myotis is among the hardest hit, with estimated declines of 97% or more in affected populations. The bat is found in 37 eastern and north-central states, as well as Washington, DC, and much of Canada.
Named after the white, fuzzy spots that appear on infected bats, white-nose syndrome attacks the wings, snouts, and ears of bats when they hibernate in abandoned caves and mines.
This causes them to wake up early from hibernation and sometimes fly outside. They can burn their winter fat stores and end up starving to death.
The disease has spread to nearly 80% of the geographic range where northern bats live and is expected to cover it entirely by 2025.
Another species ravaged by the fungus is the tricolor bat, which the government has proposed listing as endangered. in September. A third, the little brown myotis, is being evaluated for potential listing.
Bats are thought to give US agriculture a $3 billion annual boost by gobbling up pests and pollinating certain plants.
The Fish and Wildlife Service designated the northern bat as endangered in 2015. With its situation increasingly serious, the agency proposed an endangered listing in March and considered public comments before deciding to proceed. The reclassification takes effect on January 30, 2023.
“This species is in dire straits, but we never want to give up hope,” said Winifred Frick, chief scientist at Bat Conservation International, a nonprofit group. “We can do amazing things when we work hard and have legal protections in place to protect these little settlements that are left.”
In many cases, the service identifies areas of “critical habitat” considered particularly important to the survival of an endangered species. Authorities have decided not to do this for the northern bat because habitat loss is not the main reason for its decline, spokeswoman Georgia Parham said. Drawing attention to their winter hibernation spots could make matters worse, she added.
Recovery efforts will focus on forested areas where bats roost in the summer – usually singly or in small groups, nestling under bark or in tree cavities and crevices. Emerging at dusk, they feed on moths, beetles and other insects.
Under the Endangered Species Act, federal agencies are required to consult with the Fish and Wildlife Service to ensure that projects they fund or authorize – such as timber harvesting, prescribed fires and construction of highways – will not jeopardize the existence of a listed species.
For non-federal landowners, actions that could result in unintentional killings might be permitted, but will require permits.
The Fish and Wildlife Service said it will also work with wind energy companies to reduce the likelihood of bats hitting wind turbines. These collisions currently pose a threat in about half of the northern myotis’ range, an area likely to grow as wind energy development expands.
The department has approved nearly two dozen plans allowing wind and forestry projects to continue after steps were taken to make them more bat-friendly, said Karen Herrington, Midwest Regional Coordinator for Endangered Species and endangered.
Operators can limit the danger by limiting blade rotation during bat migration season and when winds are low.
Research continues for methods to combat white nose syndrome, including the development of a vaccine. The service has distributed more than $46 million for the campaign, which involves about 150 agencies, private organizations and Native American tribes.
“We need to find a cure for the white nose syndrome that is killing our bats and we need to protect the forests where they live,” said Ryan Shannon, senior attorney at the nonprofit Center for Biological Diversity. “This endangered list will help on both counts.”
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