USFWS says it won’t set critical habitat for threatened bat

Northern long-eared bat
A northern long-eared bat. Photo by New York Department of Environmental Conservation; Al Hicks.

Conservation groups say agency sold out to special interests

Staff Report

Federal biologists say they won’t designate critical habitat for a species of bat threatened by white-nose syndrome. The decision was immediately protested by conservation advocates, who claim the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service caved to industry pressure in making the decision.

In a press release, the USFWS explained that designating critical habitat wouldn’t be prudent, because it might increase the risk of vandalism and disturbance to bats at hibernation sites and could hasten the spread of white-nose syndrome. The decision doesn’t affect the bat’s threatened status under the Endangered Species Act.

Long-eared bat populations have plummeted by up to 90 percent in some core areas, and conservation advocates say critical habitat could help protect the species. The Center for Biological Diversity said the decision is another example of the USFWS appeasing special interests “rather than protecting our most vulnerable animals.”

According to the group, there’s little evidence that the long-eared bats are threatened by vandalism and disturbances in hibernation areas. Instead, the population decline has been driven by disease and habitat loss. Here’s how USFWS regional director explained the decision in a press release:

“While critical habitat has a fundamental role to play in recovering many of our nation’s most imperiled species, in the case of the northern long-eared bat, whose habitat is not a limiting factor in its survival, designating it could do more harm than good. Today’s finding will ensure we don’t put the bat at greater risk by drawing people to its hibernation sites. It also enables the Service and our partners to focus our efforts where they clearly can do the most good, finding a solution to the primary threat of white-nose syndrome.”

The northern long-eared bat was protected under the Endangered Species Act in 2015 as the result of a 2010 petition by the Center for Biological Diversity. The Service proposed protection for the bat as “endangered,” but following intense pressure from industry the agency backpedaled and protected the bat as “threatened” with a special rule that allows ongoing destruction of its habitat.

The northern long-eared bat is a forest-dependent species and is threatened by logging, mining, oil and gas development and other activities that clear forest cover. In a bow to industry, after initially acknowledging that habitat loss threatens the bat, the Service is now focusing solely on the disease known as white-nose syndrome.

“To put it simply, the Fish and Wildlife Service isn’t protecting habitat for the bat because it would be inconvenient for them to stand up to industry — not because it wouldn’t benefit the bat,” said center attorney Tanya Sanerib.

The long-eared bat is found from Maine to North Carolina on the Atlantic Coast, westward to eastern Oklahoma and north through the Dakotas, reaching into eastern Montana and Wyoming.  The species is also found in Canadian provinces from the Atlantic Ocean west to the southern Yukon Territory and eastern British Columbia. Bats are critical to the nation’s ecology and provide billions of dollars in economic benefit to farmers and foresters through the consumption of tons of insects nightly.

The Service’s determination can be found in the April 27, 2016, Federal Register. For more information on the northern long-eared bat, go to http://www.fws.gov/midwest/endangered/mammals/nleb/index.html.  For more information about white-nose syndrome, visit https://www.whitenosesyndrome.org/.

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