WASHINGTON, Oct. 15, 2015 – Coming soon: a potential determination on whether or not the northern long-eared bat species, prevalent throughout much of the United States, will be listed as “endangered” by the Fish and Wildlife Service (FWS). A decision, which could impact hundreds of thousands of acres, is expected early next year.
In a recent letter to Interior Secretary Sally Jewell and Commerce Secretary Penny Pritzker, Senator John Thune, R-S.D., said listing the bat as an endangered species could have an impact on South Dakota’s timber industry, and would ultimately lead to greatly diminished forest management in the Black Hills. Thune and Rep. Kristi Noem sent another letter yesterday.
Thune asked Jewell and Pritzker to withdraw rule proposals by the FWS and the National Marine Fisheries Service (NMFS) related to critical habitat designations under the ESA. Senators David Vitter, R-La., John Boozman, R-Ark., and Marco Rubio, R-Fla., also signed the letter.
Thune said the proposals would expand the ESA to allow the agencies to list virtually any area as critical habitat, whether occupied or unoccupied by an endangered species. “Additionally, the proposals would allow the services to list areas that are not currently suitable habitat for species as critical habitat under the guise that the habitat may one day be suitable,” the letter said.
“These latest proposals follow a troubling trend, at both services, of expanding the ESA beyond its lawful scope,” wrote the senators.
According to FWS, the proposals “are intended to add clarity for the public, clarify expectations regarding critical habitat and provide for a credible, predictable, and simplified critical habitat designation process.”
In 2011, the FWS reached an agreement in a lawsuit filed by the Center for Biological Diversity that requires the agency to list determinations on more than 250 species across the United States. The FWS agreed to publish certain ESA listing actions, including critical habitat designations, in fiscal years 2013-2018.
“The agreement is intended to significantly reduce ESA-related litigation and allow the agency to focus its resources on the species most in need of ESA protection,” according to FWS.
However, Thune and his colleagues said the agreement has helped transform the ESA into a tool for agencies to intrude on private land. “These rules would allow both the FWS and NMFS unprecedented federal authority and would place strict limitations on the land preventing productive and beneficial use.”
According to the Fish and Wildlife Service, 39 states would be affected by an endangered listing for the northern long-eared bat, which brings on several restrictions for land use. FWS identifies several potential factors that would need to be monitored in the bat’s region, including the chemical application of pesticides, wind energy and fracking. However, FWS notes that the primary reasons for bat population decline is a disease transmitted bat-to-bat known as the white nose syndrome.
In a separate letter sent Tuesday to Jewell and FWS Director Dan Ashe, Thune and Rep. Kristi Noem, R-S.D., said the proposed listing of the long-eared bat is a misguided use of the ESA. “While white nose syndrome is a species-threatening disease that has jeopardized northern long-eared bat populations in many states, the proposal focuses primarily on habitat – a non-factor according to many researchers,” Noem said in a press release.
“Farmers and ranchers are more than willing to mitigate impacts from pesticides on wildlife. The problem here is the Fish and Wildlife Service fails to provide any sort of record linking the application of chemicals to the health of the bat,” said Ryan Yates, AFBF public policy expert and the chairman of a national coalition dedicated to changing the ESA.
Yates said around 1,500 species have been listed as endangered under the ESA in the past 40 years, but only 29 of those species have successfully recovered. “The act is very good at allowing species to be listed, but it fails at the ability to successfully recover species.”
The bat is just one of a number of listing decisions the FWS is scheduled to make over the next couple of years. FWS has published a list of its work plan covering 2013-2018. For example, the agency will decide if the greater sage grouse, which is prevalent in western rangelands, should be formally listed under the ESA in September of 2015. The USDA’s Natural Resources Conservation Service in 2010 launched its Sage Grouse Initiative, which is trying to enlist farmers and ranchers in a voluntary effort to boost habitat for the species.
In August, the Center for Biological Diversity and Center for Food Safety filed a petition targeting the crop protection industries while seeking ESA protection for monarch butterflies, which they say have declined by more than 90 percent in under 20 years. “The widespread decline of monarchs is driven by the massive spraying of herbicides on genetically engineered crops, which has virtually eliminated monarch habitat in cropland that dominates the Midwest landscape,” said Bill Freese, a Center for Food Safety science policy analyst. Several groups support retaining and planting milkweed to improve monarch habitat.
Earlier this year, House passed several bills designed to change the ESA. For example, H.R. 4315, the 21st Century Endangered Species Transparency Act, sponsored by Rep. Doc Hastings, R-Wash., would require online publication of the data used in ESA listing determinations. However, the Office of Management and Budget said the bill would “add yet another administratively burdensome reporting requirement to an already long list of reporting requirements,” and recommended that the president veto the bill if it made it to his desk.
According to AFBF’s Yates, Congress needs to find ways to update the ESA. “The rate at which the FWS is making decisions to list will have an impact on farmers and ranchers across the country,” Yates said. “If we see petitions from outside organizations continue as they have in the last five or six years, most likely the Fish and Wildlife Service will be inundated… It’s one more example of where Congress needs to intervene and provide some necessary updates.”
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