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Feds add new protections for long-eared bats

Federal regulators Wednesday listed northern long-eared bats as threatened, giving the creatures new legal protections as they struggle to survive white-nose syndrome.

The contagious fungal disease has wiped out bat colonies around the country. It’s also been found in bats in southern Minnesota and on the state’s Iron Range.

The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service stopped short of declaring the bats “endangered” but said the new rules would help protect bats while eliminating “unnecessary regulatory requirements” for landowners, land managers, government agencies and others in the bats’ range.

The regulations, for instance, prohibit purposeful killing of long-eared bats. Clear-cut logging won’t be allowed within a quarter mile of a roost tree, where female long-eared bats raise their young.

Loggers, however, won’t be required to conduct expensive surveys to find those trees. Road expansion and hazardous tree removal are also exempt from the rule as long as known maternity roosts are protected.

Wind energy and oil related projects, including proposed Enbridge Energy pipelines in northern Minnesota, will have to stay a quarter mile away from roost trees, but only during June and July when the bats are raising their young.

The protections will be enforced within 150 miles of anywhere the white nose fungus has been found. Most of eastern and central Minnesota falls within that zone, said Tony Sullins, the fish and wildlife service’s endangered species chief for the Midwest.

Federal officials initially suggested the bat be listed as endangered, but over the past 18 months new information came to light, Sullins added.

Some of that information came from a $5 million survey funded by Enbridge, which showed healthy long-eared bat populations in Minnesota along the proposed route of the company’s Sandpiper oil pipeline. The new information suggested long-eared bats aren’t yet on the brink of extinction, but rather, under threat of future extinction.

The new restrictions aren’t designed to stop the spread of white-nose syndrome, which is likely to move across the bats’ full range over the next decade.

“White nose syndrome will come, and it will have a dramatic impact on this species when it does come,” Sullins said. “These conservation measures will at least conserve some of the bats, and we’ll have a slightly more robust population of bats when white nose does arrive.”