Could bat listing debate drive changes in Endangered Species Act?

By Agri-Pulse staff

© Copyright Agri-Pulse Communications, Inc.



WASHINGTON, Sept. 10, 2014 - The U.S. Fish and Wildlife (FWS) is debating whether to list the northern long-eared bat (NLE) as an endangered species, adding fuel to the ongoing controversy surrounding the Endangered Species Act (ESA), according to witnesses at a House Natural Resources Committee field hearing this week.

During the hearing at the state capitol in Harrisburg, Pennsylvania, Jim Brubaker, an official with the Pennsylvania Farm Bureau, testified that listing the bat would create an undue financial burden on farmers, while not addressing the root problem: a fungal disease fatal to bats known as white-nose syndrome.

“With a range of 38 states and the District of Columbia, and the fact that this species of bat is 15 to 20 times more common than other non-listed bats in some areas, the potential scope of this listing and the impact on agriculture could be unprecedented,” Brubaker said. He noted that the bat species settles in barns, sheds and a wide variety of timberline. "What if the bats in my barn are the NLE bat? Would I be prohibited from changing or making repairs to my barn?"

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Republican Pennsylvania state Rep. Jeff Pyle, R, who participated as a witness, said the potential NLE listing shows that federal ESA listings are unpredictable and often unwarranted, due to limited or shielded data. "The crux of the matter is...until you change the ESA, anything can happen," he said.

The FWS made a settlement with environmental groups in 2011, and agreed to systematically, over a period of six years, review the needs of hundreds of species listed on the 2010 Candidate Notice of Review, to determine which species should be added to the Federal Lists of Endangered and Threatened Wildlife and Plants.

According to FWS, the plan was first developed through an agreement with the WildEarth Guardians and filed in the U.S. District Court for the District of Columbia in 2011. Later that year, the Service reached an agreement with another plaintiff group, the Center for Biological Diversity (CBD), which reinforces the multiyear work plan.

According to the CBD, the agreement requires FWS to make initial or final decisions on whether to add up to 757 species of imperiled plants and animals to the endangered species list by 2018.

Mollie Matteson, a senior scientist for the CBD, said the NLE population will become extinct without an ESA listing. "Without this bat the challenges farmers and the timber industry face will grow, not lessen," she said, noting that the insect-eating bat "provides a valuable population check" on moths and beetles that attack timber and crops. ”It's important that we safeguard survivors from as much harm as possible, including habitat loss."

In response to a petition from the Center for Biological Diversity in 2010, the FWS published a proposal in 2013 to list the Northern Long-Eared bat as endangered throughout its range under the ESA.

"The primary threat to the northern long-eared bat is a disease, white-nose syndrome, which has killed an estimated 5.5 million cave-hibernating bats in the Northeast, Southeast, Midwest and Canada," FWS noted in its proposal. "Populations of the northern long-eared bat in the Northeast have declined by 99 percent since symptoms of white-nose syndrome were first observed in 2006."

Under the ESA, an endangered animal is one that is in danger of becoming extinct. If a final decision is made to list the northern long-eared bat, the species will be protected and the government will work to conserve the bat's habitat, as well as form a recovery plan for the species.

FWS said its final decision on the listing will be made no later than April 2, 2015 - six months later than an earlier deadline. Rep. Glenn Thompson, R-Penn., said this is a sign that the agency recognizes problems with a potential NLE listing. 

Rep. Doc Hastings, R-Wash., the chairman of the Natural Resources Committee, said the FWS recognizes that the white-nose syndrome, a disease transmitted from bats to other bats, is the primary cause of population decline for the species-- not habitat decline.

"It seems to me that efforts should focus on that issue, rather than creating a federal endangered-species solution in search of a problem," Hastings said. “Federal edicts that ignore state efforts and data and impose one-size-fits-all solutions are not the most cooperative way to achieve this objective.”

Since the ESA requires the FWS to focus on habitat preservation, a listing for the species would disrupt several states' economies, without actually helping the bat, said Paul Lyskava, the executive director of the Pennsylvania Forest Products Association.  If the bat is listed as endangered, the FWS will likely restrict tree removal activities, he noted.

In an interview with Agri-Pulse, Rep. Thompson said more transparency from the FWS about its data and scientific process could improve the ESA. The House in July passed the 21st Century Endangered Species Transparency Act (H.R. 4315), which would require the federal government to disclose to affected states the data used before making an ESA listing decision, and to require FWS to report the federal taxpayer funds used to respond to ESA lawsuits. The Senate has not acted on the legislation. Some Democrats say the bill is an attempt to weaken the ESA.

"Environmental groups bring lawsuits against the Fish and Wildlife Service, and almost force them to do things that are not successful for the species," Thompson said.

Lyskava said the ESA is "poorly suited" to help species suffering from wildlife diseases. He also said the debate over the NLE listing is "our spotted owl moment."  The northern spotted owl has been listed as endangered for more than 20 years. During that time the Northwest's timber industry has been in decline, but the spotted owl population continues to fall due to aggressive, larger barred owls. 

"It is my concern that federal listings of this scope and magnitude should not be driven by arbitrary court-settlement deadlines or be based on unpublished or sketchy data or personal opinions by federal bureaucrats,” Perry said during the hearing, adding that the proposed listing could significantly impact Pennsylvania industries, "while doing little if anything to help the declining population of long-eared bats.”

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