The northern long-eared bat is a little thing with brown fur. And its ears are longer than average, for a bat.
In winter, it hangs out in mines and caves in the Upper Peninsula.
But things have gotten really bad for this creature, and there’s one main reason:
“When the fungus starts growing, very often you’ll often see a cluster of white fungus on the snout of the animal because that’s bare skin and that’s how it got its name, white-nose syndrome,” says Allen Kurta, a professor of biology at Eastern Michigan University. He’s one of the people who found white-nose syndrome in bats in Michigan for the first time last spring. He was surveying bats in a mine near Iron Mountain.
“And I took one down to look at it for closer examination, and when I opened up the wing it seemed to me like I saw a bunch of cotton candy.”
Kurta says the fungus grows on any exposed skin. Infected bats lose water from their bodies and they wake up from hibernation twice as often. That means they burn through their fat supply in the winter. Then, they starve to death.
Five of Michigan’s nine bat species can get the disease. The bats that hibernate underground are the ones at risk. The northern long-eared bat is getting hit especially hard.
“We are seeing 90% declines and sometimes even greater in that species in caves and mines in the eastern U.S. So, that species is disappearing from the landscape and that’s why the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service was petitioned in order to add it to the endangered species list,” says Kurta.
Industries worry listing will hurt business
The Center for Biological Diversity petitioned the Fish and Wildlife Service to add the bat to the list in 2010.
In 2013, the Fish and Wildlife Service proposed to list the bat as endangered. The agency has held three public comment periods and gotten a lot of pushback on that proposal.
Tony Sullins is the chief of endangered species for the agency’s Midwest region. He says there are 37 states in the bat’s range.
“We had some strongly worded input from many of the states that they felt there was not adequate scientific information to support an endangered listing.”
Sullins says they’ve also heard concerns from the timber industry, the wind and oil and gas industries and mining and caving interests. He says all were concerned their businesses would be restricted in some way.
“To be honest, in my opinion, I think whether the species were to be listed as endangered or whether it was listed as threatened, we'd find a way moving forward, we’d find a lot of ways, to conserve the bat and minimize economic impact,” says Sullins.
Last December, more than 80 bat scientists signed a letter to the Fish and Wildlife Service urging the agency to list the northern long-eared bat as endangered. Here's an excerpt:
The October 2013 status assessment conducted by the Fish and Wildlife Service was based on the best available scientific and commercial information, as required under the Endangered Species Act. Peer review confirmed the Service’s proposal as accurately and correctly assessing the scientific evidence and properly recommending endangered status. It is highly unfortunate that opponents to the proposed listing, largely spokespersons for industries such as timber, oil and gas, and mining, as well politicians seeking to weaken the Endangered Species Act, have used misinformation and scare tactics to postpone the protection of this species, but evidence indicating the northern long-eared bat’s precipitous decline is clear.
Tony Sullins says all options are still on the table. They could decide not to list the bat at all. They could list it as endangered. Or they could list it as threatened — that listing is less restrictive.
21 Members of Congress recently sent a letter to the Fish and Wildlife Service.
Republican Congressman Dan Benishek represents northern Michigan’s first district. He’s urging the Fish and Wildlife Service to hold more public meetings and extend the comment period again.
“So that stakeholders within the state and my district can have a chance to give their opinions on how it should be managed," he says.
Benishek says he knows the bat plays a critical role in its ecosystem by eating insects, but he wants to make sure any new regulations won’t burden the timber, agriculture and construction industries.
State agencies adjust projects to reduce potential harm to bats
State agencies in Michigan are already taking steps in case the bat is listed.
Kristin Schuster is with the Michigan Department of Transportation. She says they had to make changes for about 80 construction projects that are planned for this summer. They cut trees in the winter to avoid harming any bats that might roost in them in the summer.
“It covers cutting that is required for the construction projects to be done during the winter months when the bat is still hibernating in the caves or mines," she says. "So the goal is for the department to get the necessary trees cut to support the construction work without impact.”
The Fish and Wildlife Service has until April 2 to decide whether to put the bat on the endangered species list. Today, March 17, is the last day for public comments.