On 13 January 2016, the U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service (FWS) issued regulations designed to protect the northern long-eared bat (Myotis septentrionalis), one of several types of bat that have suffered steep population declines because of white-nose disease. The measures constitute an update to interim rules that accompanied a decision last April, which designated the northern long-eared bat as threatened under the Endangered Species Act. The final version of the rule is less restrictive toward timber harvesting; clearing land for wind turbines, houses or oil pipelines; and other activities that might cause some long-eared bat mortality but which the FWS has determined to have no significant effect on the overall population.
On the other hand, white-nose syndrome has killed and estimated 5.7 million bats since monitoring began upon its discovery in a New York cave in 2006. Diseased bats, or the fungus itself, have been detected in 30 states in the Northeast, South and Midwest and in five Canadian provinces. Seven bat species have been affected and the northern long-eared bat is among those hardest hit. The fungus attacks bats that spend winters in caves and mines, disrupting hibernation and depleting the energy their bodies must ration until spring to avoid starvation. It may directly destroy tissue, especially the delicate skin comprising the wings of affected bats.
Inherent in the FWS decision was the decision to list the northern long-eared bat as “threatened” as opposed to “endangered”, a protection category that imposes less-stringent limits on human actions that could harm the animal. The decision has generated criticism from opposite sides of the conservation front: criticism from the timber, oil, and gas industries, which aver that new regulations could boost costs and hamper their work without measurably helping the bats and the potential for an enhanced law suit brought by the Center for Biological Diversity (CBD). Having already challenged the interim rules and especially, the government’s refusal to list the bat as endangered, the environmental group may expand the suit to include the new rules, which “will almost certainly result in more dead bats by allowing the destruction of habitat they need when coming out of hibernation or are pregnant in the summer,” according to CBD attorney Tanya Sanerib. Of particular concern with respect to the ruling is that meta-populations of the long-eared bat have fallen more than 90 percent in some places.
The FWS suggest that the regulations, which take effect Feb. 16, are necessary to protect crucial habitat, including hibernation caves and trees where the bats raise their young during summer. They also argue that the final rule was revised to reduce inconvenience to landowners and industry. According to Tom Melius, FWS Midwestern regional director, “while making it illegal to intentionally kill or harass the bats, [the ruling] keeps to a minimum the prohibitions on harm that happens during otherwise legal projects.”
A spokesperson for the Independent Petroleum Association of America (PAA) said the final regulations were an acceptable compromise. “While oil and gas operations have a negligible impact on the health of the northern long-eared bat, independent producers stand willing and able to comply with conservation measures designed to protect the bat during its most sensitive stages of life,” said Dan Naatz, a vice president of the PAA.
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