Voices of the Future (13) - The Northern long-eared bat: how a small mammal nearly crippled the logging industry in the Eastern U.S.

by Aaron Yablonski
Wildlife and Fisheries Science Major, graduating May 2016

If I had a dollar for every time I have heard the phrase “bats are just rats with wings,” I would be able to afford a degree at an Ivy League university. Unfortunately, this is the way many people view these creatures. Due to decades of seeing movies about vampires who morph into our familiar flying friends, among other things, there has been a negative image of bats that cropped up but that has thankfully been fading away over the last few years.

Source: http://www.fws.gov
In reality, bats are not the evil bloodsuckers of past nightmares but peaceful creatures that play an important role in not only the ecosystem, but also our economies. Many common bats in Pennsylvania are insectivores, meaning they subsist on a diet entirely consisting of bugs. These insects, which include gypsy moths, tent caterpillar beetles, and mosquitoes, can cause detrimental effects to both plants and humans. So instead of fearing these amicable creatures, we should be befriending them and in fact have been. However, over the last decade, bat populations have been under attack.

White nose syndrome is a deadly condition thought to be a fungus that has wiped out upwards of 99% of the bats in Pennsylvania. As a result of these dire circumstances and because of the bats’ value, steps have been taken to protect both them and their habitat.

Source: http://www.fws.gov/northeast/virginiafield/pdf/NLEBinterimGuidance6Jan2014.pdf

Recently, there was a decision made by the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service to list the northern long-eared bat (hereafter referred to as the NLEB) under the protection of the Endangered Species Act. This is where the situation became a bit hairy. If the NLEB was listed as “endangered" under the ESA, the logging industry in Pennsylvania would have been decimated. PA is the country’s number 1 producer of hardwood, employs nearly 80,000 individuals in the logging industry, and sold roughly $17 billion in hardwood. Clearly, we value our wood. Under the ESA, a species that is listed as “endangered” may not be taken in any part of its range. No problem, right? Well see, with 112 known hibernacula spread out all across Pennsylvania and with a habitat of forestland the little buggers can’t easily be avoided. NLEB habitat is bound to be impacted by logging, it really is unavoidable. To avoid hefty penalties, it would be safer for companies to avoid logging in certain areas altogether. This leaves very little industry. 

Source: http://www.agriculture.state.pa.us/

Obviously listing the NLEB as “endangered” isn’t the best idea since we still want our precious wood. And of course we can’t do nothing to help protect it since it is so essential to us. So what could we do? Thankfully, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service decided to list the NLEB as “threatened” with a 4 (d) rule. Without this 4 (d) rule, the bat would have been essentially an endangered species. What this basically does is list it as a threatened species, but allows exceptions to be made so that certain activities will not be as heavily impacted by the listing. This listing lets the logging industry continue in areas where the NLEB occurs, but under heavy restrictions. 
Under the listing, harvesting of trees may not occur within 0.25 miles of a known hibernacula, cutting occupied roosting trees during the pup season (June and July) is prohibited, and clear cutting within 0.25 miles of a maternity roost during the same time period. Personally, I believe these restrictions are still not suitable protection for the NLEB. According to the USFWS’s conference on the NLEB in January of 2014, there should be a minimum 1.5 mile buffer zone around roosting trees in the summer, suitable forested habitat within 5 miles of a hibernaculum in late summer and the fall, and minimal noise disturbance during the winter months. These restrictions under the listing clearly contradict what the conference had decided was appropriate. Why did the USFWS say one thing and do another? I could write an entire blog post about what I think is the real reason ($$$) but this isn’t the time or place for that discussion. 

These restrictions are based around providing suitable habitat for the bats to recover and frankly, 0.25 miles isn’t going to cut it. Have you ever been within that distance of a logging operation? Do you think you could take a proper nap that close to one? Unless you sleep like the logs being produced, I don’t think so. These bats are already in a vulnerable state with white nose syndrome and excessive noise won’t do them any favors. Furthermore, during the pupping season, females need to have an increased intake of food in order to supply their offspring with the proper nutrients. Large roosts are going to need much more space than 0.25 miles in order to feed themselves. 

Despite all that the USFWS got wrong, this decision is a step in the right direction. Their decision will not in fact cripple the logging industry in Pennsylvania while providing the first step in recovering an incredibly important pest control species. We as citizens should continue to fight for the protection of our bats until they get the care they need and deserve. For now however, we must take what is given to us and be grateful. 

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Tom Inman said…
One important fact that should be included in your post is the US Fish and Wildlife Service recognizes that forestry related activities DO NOT HAVE significant impact on the NLEB. They acknowledge that the White Nose Syndrome, a fungal disease spread during WINTER months in caves and hibernation sites, is the MAIN CAUSE of the bat’s population decline.
The FWS has not addressed how to slow or cure the white nose syndrome, the only action that will have any appreciable impact on the bat’s sustainability.

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