Northern long-eared bat gains protection as 'threatened' species

By Whitney Forman-Cook

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'WASHINGTON, April 1, 2015 - The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service (FWS) said it is listing the northern long-eared bat as a threatened species under the Endangered Species Act, securing certain regulatory protections for the mammal and triggering charges of government overreach from some agricultural groups and politicians.

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In a final rule to be published Thursday in the Federal Register, the agency justified the listing by noting a dramatic decline in the cave-hibernating bat's population, which it attributed to a fungal disease known as white nose syndrome (WNS). FWS also issued an interim rule, eliminating unnecessary regulatory requirements for landowners, land managers and others in the bat's range.

“Bats are a critical component of our nation's ecology and economy, maintaining a fragile predator-prey balance; we lose them at our peril,” FWS Director Dan Ashe said in a news release. “Without bats, insect populations can rise dramatically, with the potential for devastating losses for our crop farmers and foresters. The alternative to bats is greater pesticide use, which brings with it another set of ecological concerns.”

The bat's range stretches from Maine to North Carolina on the Atlantic Coast, westward to eastern Oklahoma and north through the Dakotas, reaching into eastern Montana and Wyoming. In all, it covers 37 states, the District of Columbia and 13 Canadian provinces. In October 2013, the FWS proposed listing the bat as “endangered,” meaning on the brink of extinction, which would have triggered more onerous protective measures than a “threatened” classification, which means the species is likely to become endangered in the foreseeable future.

House Natural Resources Chairman Rob Bishop, R-Utah., questioned whether the government plan would solve the “challenge” posed by WNS.

“This decision flouts transparency and will fail to mitigate the real menace to this species, which is a disease called white nose syndrome - not human activities”, Bishop said in a statement. “If success here is defined by controlling more of people's land and more people's lives, then they have succeeded.”

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Sen. John Thune, R-S.D., in early March introduced a bill that would withhold funds aimed at blocking FWS from accomplishing the listing. He said listing the bat because of concerns over the spread of white-nose syndrome, which has been found in more than 20 states - but not South Dakota - would be detrimental to forest health and management practices in his home state's Black Hills.

 

“I think it's fair to say that bad forest health also hurts the bats. If you don't have a healthy forest, in the long run, it's going to be bad for the bat populations,” Thune said at the time. “This listing is not necessary, it will have very harmful impacts on the economy and jobs in the Black Hills, and isn't going to do anything - as far as we can tell - to address the fundamental problem with the bats.”

 

Ryan Yates, director of congressional relations for the American Farm Bureau Federation (AFBF), challenged the premise that the rule would slow or stop the spread of WNS. “The proposed listing and concurrent interim 4(d) rule may impose undue harm to farmers, ranchers, and landowners by restricting activities… that are unrelated to the primary threat to this species, white nose syndrome,” he said. 

What's more, he continued, “the interim 4(d) rule does not explicitly exempt lawful pesticide use by farmers from the incidental take provisions of the ESA,” even though FWS has made “abundantly clear” in its own proposals that “pesticides are not a factor” in the bat's decline. 

Under the interim rule “purposeful take” - that is, intentionally killing, harming, collecting, capturing or harassing the animal - is prohibited, except when removing a bat from a home or for research purposes within a year of the date the rule becomes effective. 

In areas affected by WNS, “incidental take” is also allowed when it occurs during forest or prairie maintenance practices, expansion of transportation or utility right of ways and certain tree removal operations, provided these activities do not interfere with known maternity roosts and hibernation caves. FWS said bat populations weakened by WNS are particularly vulnerable to human disturbances close to their hibernation sites.

The agency said there is a 90-day comment period on the interim rule.

Jo Ann Emerson, the CEO of the National Rural Electric Cooperative Association, said she appreciated FWS' decision “to list the northern long-eared bat as threatened rather than endangered. 

FWS' “responsible approach… balances bat preservation and electric reliability,” she continued, and ensures that the rural utilities her organization represents won't have to choose between complying with industry standards and the Endangered Species Act. 

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