Bat Threatened By Epidemic Proposed For Endangered Species Protection

Tuesday, October 1, 2013

The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service proposed Endangered Species Act protection on Tuesday for the northern long-eared bat, which has been devastated by the disease known as white-nose syndrome. The agency declined protection for the eastern small-footed bat. Colonies of the northern long-eared bat affected by white-nose syndrome have in many cases experienced 100 percent mortality. Protection for the bat is the result of a landmark agreement with the Center for Biological Diversity that requires the agency to make protection decisions for 757 species.

“The proposal to protect the northern long-eared bat comes not a moment too soon,” said Mollie Matteson, a bat specialist with the Center. “The devastation of this and other bat species in the eastern United States is not just a tragedy for the bats, but also for people who rely on the pest-control services of bats eating millions of insects.”

White-nose syndrome was first documented in a bat cave in upstate New York in 2006. It has since spread to 22 states and five Canadian provinces. The pathogenic fungus, which biologists believe was introduced from Europe, grows on the noses and wings of hibernating bats and appears to cause severe dehydration, disruption of crucial electrolyte levels, and frequent arousal from hibernation, leading to premature depletion of fat reserves. Scientists estimate nearly 7 million bats have died, and the disease has affected seven bat species.

“Endangered species status for the northern long-eared bat is not an automatic cure, but it does represent admission to the ICU,” said Ms. Matteson. “We know the species will now receive stronger protections under the law and that more resources will be available to address white-nose syndrome and other threats. But the eastern small-footed bat remains at grave risk, because it was already vulnerable before the bat disease, and things have only been getting worse.”

White-nose syndrome has been particularly catastrophic for the northern long-eared bat, which has suffered mortality rates approaching 100 percent in many bat colonies. The species ranges across much of the eastern United States into the Midwest, and all the way across Canada from Newfoundland to the Pacific. While western populations are unaffected by the disease at this time, most biologists studying the malady expect it to continue to spread across the continent, likely killing many more bats as it does so. In addition to white-nose syndrome, heavy logging and development threaten the northern long-eared bat, because it is a species associated with older forests.

Biologists long considered the eastern small-footed bat to be rare in most of its range, which covers parts of the eastern United States and southern extremes of Ontario and Quebec. While not sustaining the same horrific mortality rates from white-nose syndrome as northern long-eared bats, eastern small-footed bats have declined by an estimated 12 percent. The bat disease, in combination with ongoing threats to its habitat -- especially from mining and energy development -- is making this uncommon species even scarcer.

“We’re disappointed the eastern small-footed bat was not protected, despite the fact that essentially its entire range is now infected with white-nose syndrome,” said Ms. Matteson. “But we’re hopeful scientists will keep monitoring this unique bat.”             

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