A federal agency on Wednesday declared the northern long-eared bat to be a threatened species due to a fungal disease that has devastated bat populations in Ohio and other states.
The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service said it is likely that the bat – once one of the most numerous in Ohio – will become an endangered species in the foreseeable future and perhaps extinct due to white-nose syndrome.
There is little that can be done to prevent that from happening because there are no cures for the disease, federal officials said.
But the bat is not on the brink of extinction, and the federal listing as a threatened species is justified and needed, agency spokesman Tony Sullins said in a teleconference.
“Bats are a critical component of our nation’s ecology and economy, maintaining a fragile insect predator-prey balance; we lose them at our peril,” agency Director Dan Ashe said in a statement.
The northern long-eared bat is a medium-sized bat about 3 to 3.7 inches long with a wingspan of 9 to 10 inches. Its fur color can be medium to dark brown on the back and tawny to pale brown on the underside. It has big ears and feeds on insects.
The federal designation, under study since October 2013, and interim protective rules that limit some summer tree cutting will go into effect May 4. Final rules should be completed by Dec. 31.
The protective measures improve the bats’ breeding opportunities by restricting some logging and tree removal from forests where the bats spend the warmer months. The rules will be in effect in June and July, when newborn bats live in nests before learning to fly.
The issue of whether the northern long-eared bat would become an endangered or threatened species had concerned mining operators, oil-and-natural gas drillers, electric utilities, residential and business developers and those involved in road and bridge projects because of the federal rules that could be imposed under the federal Endangered Species Act.
The Ohio Oil and Gas Association, a statewide trade group, said it was pleased that the bats were not listed as endangered, said spokesman Mike Chadsey.
“The northern long-eared bat is found in 39 states… and has a very healthy population in Ohio. An endangered listing would not have addressed the true threat to the bat which is a disease known as white-nose syndrome, not activities caused by industry activities, including oil and gas development, commercial development, residential development and wind power generation,” he said.
The federal action “will enable Fish and Wildlife to set up funds for additional research to find a cure for this disease while allowing certain industry activities to continue,” he said.
It is expected that the Fish and Wildlife will be modifying the interim rules based on comments submitted by hundreds of stakeholders, including the OOGA, Chadsey said.
The federal protection is “probably appropriate,” said Mike Johnson, chief of resource management for Summit Metro Parks. “But I’m not pleased. It’s just sad that such action is necessary.”
Park district surveys in 2013 and 2014 turned up no northern long-eared bats in Summit County, although it was the third most numerous bat in the past locally, he said.
“And we’ve been looking hard for it,” he said. “We used to find it all the time. We used to catch it all the time. It used to be very common.”
The number of bats that winter in caves and crevasses in Liberty Park in northern Summit County has dropped sharply due to the disease.
It was found in Ohio in 2011 and confirmed at Liberty Park in early 2012. There is no cure. People cannot contract the fungus. The disease was discovered in New York in 2006 and it has killed six million bats in Ohio and other states. It has been confirmed in 25 of the 37 states where the northern long-eared bat lives.
Liberty Park probably housed “tens of thousands of bats, perhaps as many as 100,000 bats in the past, but that total is now in the hundreds,” Johnson said.
The park district is working to win federal approval for a bat conservation project based in and around Liberty Park in Twinsburg, Twinsburg Township and Reminderville.
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