The impact of white-nose syndrome (WNS), a deadly fungal disease that has already killed millions of bats, has led to a years-long struggle to get federal protection for the northern long-eared bat before it’s too late, but the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service (FWS) continues to drag its feet and has postponed taking action to protect them yet again.
These bats, easily identified by their long ears, have been especially hit hard by this disease. According to the Animal Welfare Institute (AWI), WNS has been confirmed in 28 of the 39 states this little bat calls home, while the FWS estimates that their population has declined by 99 percent in the Northeast since 2006, where they’ve historically been the most abundant.
Their disappearance isn’t just bad news for them; it’s bad news for us too because healthy bat populations help control pests. What they do doesn’t just help keep bugs at bay, but is estimated to provide billions of dollars worth of eco-friendly pest control services every year that benefit agriculture.
Conservationists and bat advocates have been worried about how the continuing spread of WNS would affect bats for years. In 2010, the Center for Biological Diversity and WildEarth Guardians filed a petition to have have both the northern long-eared bat and the small-footed bat listed as endangered species in an effort to ensure they were protected.
Last year, the FWS agreed that the petition to protect at least northern long-eared bats was warranted and proposed listing them as endangered, which would have meant the agency would identify critical habitat and protect it and prohibit activities that could kill these bats even accidentally. It would also require the agency develop a recovery plan to help ensure their future survival.
The proposal should have been finalized this October, but pressure from politicians, natural resource officials and industry groups has led the agency to postpone making a final decision until April 2015.
Meanwhile, these little bats are left not only facing the imminent threat of WNS, but also other threats including pesticides, wind energy development, mining, habitat loss and people disturbing them while they’re hibernating. While they spend their winters in caves and mines, logging and projects that involve both live and dead tree removal also threaten to take away vital places for them to roost in the summer.
Opponents argue that since these activities aren’t the primary threat to these bats, they should be exempted from the Endangered Species Act because they would get in the way of certain businesses, but bat supporters disagree.
“With so few left, every individual bat is vital,” said Nancy Blaney, senior policy advisor with AWI. “Every delay in protection for this bat means that it will be in worse shape by the time the government finally does what is clearly necessary―to list this bat under the ESA and get down to the work of safeguarding it from all actions that jeopardize its continued existence.”
Last week two dozen conservation and animal advocacy organizations sent a letter to Interior Secretary Sally Jewell and FWS director Dan Ashe urging the agency to finish its plan to protect these bats, arguing that they’re already facing the very real threat of extinction and there’s no more time to lose.
“There’s no scientifically valid reason to delay protecting the northern long-eared bat. There are only political reasons,” said Mollie Matteson, a senior scientist with the Center for Biological Diversity.
While the official public comment period is closed, you can still sign and share the petition urging the FWS to take immediate action to protect northern long-eared bats.
Photo credit: Alex Silvas/USGS