Newspaper article Pittsburgh Post-Gazette (Pittsburgh, PA)

Major Pa. Bat Species 'Threatened' Mysterious Fungal Disease Has Decimated Once-Bursting Population

Newspaper article Pittsburgh Post-Gazette (Pittsburgh, PA)

Major Pa. Bat Species 'Threatened' Mysterious Fungal Disease Has Decimated Once-Bursting Population

Article excerpt

The northern long-eared bat, until recently one of the most common bat species in Pennsylvania, was listed as "threatened" last week by the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, primarily due to white- nose syndrome, a fungal disease that has decimated the species and killed millions of bats throughout North America.

Although the Fish and Wildlife Service also proposed interim rules aimed at minimizing the impact of the bat's listing on some industrial activities that impact bat habitat, including forest timbering, the listing and rules remain controversial for other industries, such as oil and gas and wind energy, because of their potential to restrict development.

Lora Zimmerman, a project leader with the federal agency, said that in Pennsylvania, northern long-eared bat population numbers are less than 5 percent of what they were prior to 2006, when the fungus that produces white-nose syndrome was discovered in a cave in upstate New York.

The agency originally proposed to list the bat as "endangered," a more restrictive listing, in October 2013, but Ms. Zimmerman said it settled on "threatened." That came after a review showed that while it has been severely reduced by the fatal fungus in the majority of its historic range in the northeastern U.S., the bat's population is unaffected in other parts of its range where the fungus has yet to spread.

A threatened listing identifies species likely to become endangered in the foreseeable future, according to the Wildlife Service, while an endangered species is currently in danger of becoming extinct.

"In Pennsylvania, the threatened listing, instead of endangered, might be difficult to understand because the northern long-eared has been devastated in the state," Ms. Zimmerman said, adding that as white-nose syndrome continues to spread the threatened designation for the bat "will likely be re-evaluated regularly."

The fungus, which has expanded and continues to expand throughout the eastern U.S. and Canada, attacks bats where they hibernate, usually in caves. The infected bats awake from hibernation early, before there are insects to eat, and starve.

The bat's listing, announced Thursday in the Federal Register, becomes effective in 30 days. The interim rules for the listing - which allow for forest cutting and management, limited expansion of existing transportation and utility rights-of-way, and certain limited tree removal - also are effective in 30 days.

But the agency also opened a 90-day public comment period on the rules with the intent of finalizing the rules by the end of the year.

The service said it considered more than 100,000 comments - an unusually high number - on the proposed listing and rules. Many of those were from the oil and gas, timbering, wind power and home building sectors requesting allowances for their operations affecting potential habitat. …

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