Bat Fight: Environmentalists Sue Feds for Failing to Protect Bats

AP Photo/Tory Talbot

Wind energy industry leaders offered a plan to protect bats that federal officials rejected.

Imagine if the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service decided to allow trees where bald eagles nest to be cut down as soon as this year’s baby eagles leave the nest. The public outcry would be enormous; it’s easy to picture activists forming human blockades to protect the trees.

Yet that’s exactly the effect a recent Fish and Wildlife Service ruling has on a threatened species of North American bat—and almost nobody’s protesting. The explanation is simple: Bats are a species more feared than revered, associated in the public mind with rabies and vampires. Yet bats contribute billions of dollars annually to the U.S. economy in insect control, forest health, lower pesticide use, and pollination of important plants.

That’s what makes the Fish and Wildlife Service’s failure to seize a recent, rare opportunity to protect American bats all the more disturbing—and why four environmental groups have announced plans to sue the service for endangering the very species it is charged to protect.

The lawsuit centers on the northern long-eared bat, Myotis septentrionalis. Until ten years ago, it was one of the most frequently seen bats in the eastern half of North America. But in 2006, a previously unknown fungus, likely from Europe, started an epidemic known as “white nose syndrome.” The fungus grows on the faces and wings of hibernating bats, repeatedly rousing them from hibernation and causing them to consume their fat stores. Dehydrated and without food, the bats starve to death before spring.

The disease has devastated three species of hibernating bats, and losses have exceeded 98 percent in some Northeast states, with more than six million bats killed overall. Not since the passenger pigeon and near-extinction of the American bison have we seen such loss of North American wildlife. To make matters worse, some 250,000 U.S. bats are the annual victims of collisions with wind turbines.

The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, which oversees enforcement of the Endangered Species Act, had an opportunity in January to improve both situations, with the backing of at least one major industry. The story started last year, when the Fish and Wildlife Service listed the northern long-eared bat as federally “threatened,” which in theory gives the species adequate protection against harassment, harm, or killing.

Some scientists and conservationists argued for the more stringent designation of “endangered,” but the Service said the lower, “threatened” status would give it more flexibility to work with industry to protect the bat. Given that a disease, and not industry, is the cause of the bat’s precipitous decline, the argument had merit.

The details are hammered out in what's called a “4d” rule: As long as a business abides by the protections the Service sets under the rule, it isn't prosecuted for the “incidental take” (accidental killing) of a bat by, for instance, inadvertently harvesting a tree where young bats are roosting. 

Because so many are struck by turbine blades, bats pose a serious hazard for the wind energy industry. In return for immunity from prosecution under the 4d rule, the wind industry proposed to create an industry-funded, multimillion-dollar white-nose syndrome research fund. More significantly, industry leaders offered to change how wind turbines are managed throughout the extensive range of the northern long-eared bat, so that far fewer would be killed by turbines. This showed true conservation leadership by the wind industry.

Based on a decade of research conducted by our organization and others, the proposed change would have cut turbine-caused bat deaths in the eastern half of the country by as much as half, annually saving tens of thousands of bats of many species. Agriculture and forestry would have benefited, as anyone sitting in their backyard on a summer night can attest.

But the Fish and Wildlife Service ignored the wind industry’s offer. In January, the Service issued regulations for protecting the northern long-eared bat that require only two things: that clearing of land and similar activity not occur within a quarter-mile of caves where the bats hibernate (thanks to the fungus, few such caves are left) and that no harvesting of timber or other conversion of woodlands occur within 150 feet of a tree where northern long-eared bats are giving birth and nursing their pups.

This last prohibition is only good for June and July, when the bats give birth. Maternity and roost trees can be cut down starting August 1. The Service’s two-month prohibition is only for known maternity roost trees. Finding such trees takes a practiced eye, but that’s a moot point, as the Service is not requiring anyone to look for them. It’s likely many such trees will be cut down at the worst possible time for the bats. And the wind industry’s proposed white-nose research fund? Thanks, but no thanks, was the Service’s response.

The lack of vision is breathtaking. A possible win-win solution has been lost. Tens of thousands of bats will die unnecessarily every year.

Alas, this also hastens the day when the northern long-eared bat will have to be listed as “endangered,” which will have a serious impact on industries working in eastern and Midwestern forests—just the sort of nightmare everyone works to avoid. This also sets a worrisome precedent for the other two species decimated by white-nose syndrome: the little brown and tri-colored bats.

We all bear some responsibility. The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service has few allies these days when it comes to aggressively enforcing the Endangered Species Act. It generally does the best it can with the resources and public support it has. But this time, it squandered an opportunity that had the backing of at least one major industry. Too bad eagles and northern long-eared bats don’t use the same trees.

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