Bat species common to Pennsylvania threatened by disease

| 09 Apr 2015 | 01:17

— One of the most common bat species in Pennsylvania is being threatened by white-nose syndrome, a fungal disease that has killed millions of bats of that species and others in North America.

The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service has listed the northern long-eared bat as a “threatened" species, the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette reported Monday.

The agency was considering listing the species as “endangered" — a more serious designation — but decided on “threatened" because the bat's population has not been affected outside areas where the fungal disease has caused problems, the newspaper reported.

The agency is proposing interim rules meant to safeguard the bat's habitat, including limits on forest timbering. But the rules could also impact the wind energy and natural gas and oil drilling industries.

Lora Zimmerman, a project leader with the Fish and Wildlife Service, said the “threatened" listing in Pennsylvania might seem odd in light of the fact that the long-eared bat's population in the state is only less than 5 percent of what it was before 2006, when the fungus that produces white-nose syndrome was discovered in a cave in upstate New York. Pennsylvania is an area hard hit by the white-nose syndrome, and the designation “will likely be re-evaluated regularly," Zimmerman said.

The interim “threatened" listing was announced Thursday in the federal register and takes effect in 30 days along with interim environmental rules. The wildlife agency plans to take 90 days of public comment on those rules, in hopes of finalizing them by year's end.

The Independent Petroleum Association of American has commented on the bat's threatened designation, but it may not file comments on the accompanying environmental rules, spokesman Neal Kirby said. He said that's because the bat's habitat isn't affected as much by drilling as it is by the fungus, and other industries, like timbering.

But Michael Gannon, a Penn State University bat expert and member of the Mammal Technical Committee for the Pennsylvania Biological Society, said rules to protect the bats are needed soon. That's because bats feed on insects and pesticide use might have to increase if the bat population doesn't rebound. Bats, in general, provide $22 billion worth of ecological services in the United States annually, including $292 million in Pennsylvania, he said.

“Shortsighted individuals that ignore the science and economics and feel protection of this valuable natural resource is not warranted will cost us considerably in the future," Gannon said.