It's been dubbed the perfect biological storm. Low temperatures, high humidity and weakened bat immune systems are providing ideal breeding grounds for a fungus that has devastated bat populations across eastern North America.
Last week, the storm got worse when the Pennsylvania Game Commission, the sole agency charged with managing the state's wildlife, withdrew its proposal to list three bat species as endangered in the Keystone State. The abrupt reversal was lauded by the timber industry and mourned by wildlife officials, including a Game Commission expert on threatened animals.
"The species are in serious, serious trouble. We need serious protections," said Greg Turner, wildlife biologist and endangered mammals specialist for the commission.
First documented in New York in the winter of 2006-07, white nose syndrome has spread to 19 states and four Canadian provinces. The disease surfaced in Pennsylvania in December 2008. By 2012, it was confirmed in 23 counties and suspected in an additional seven. Some popular recreational caving sites in Westmoreland and Fayette counties have been gated due to concerns about humans inadvertently spreading white nose syndrome.
The fungus or infected bats cannot harm humans, pets or livestock. Named after a cold-loving white fungus found on bats' muzzles and wings, white nose syndrome is linked to bats prematurely awakening from hibernation, leading to excessive loss of limited energy reserves during winter and death from starvation before spring. According to the Game Commission, massive mortality of hibernating bats began in 2009 and has continued each winter. In some impacted wintering sites, 95 percent of little brown bats die each year.
The environmental value of bats can't be underestimated. Each bat consumes roughly 900,000 to 1 million insects per year. In a journal published by the American Association for the Advancement of Science in April 2011, researchers estimated that the agricultural value of insect-suppression services provided by bats averages about $74 per acre.
"Bats have lived for millions of years hibernating like this and have never encountered such a mass mortality or a causative agent similar to this," Turner said.
In August, when analysis of surveys of hibernacula infected with white nose syndrome showed a 98 to 99 percent decline in little brown, Northern long-eared and tri-colored bats in Pennsylvania since 2008, the Game Commission stated it was considering listing those species as endangered in the state.
On Thursday, following public comment, the commission did an about-face, announcing its plans to withdraw the proposal and to not daft regulatory changes that would place these species on the state's endangered list.
"More discussion, research and coordination needs to be done, and we now have many questions that we can add to those we had developed internally as we seek to manage the state's wildlife resources," Carl Roe, Game Commission executive director, said in a prepared statement.
The decision is bad news for bats, but it's left the timber industry jumping for joy.
"We applaud the decision by the Pennsylvania Game Commission to listen to the flood of comments from the forest products industry, landowners and other impacted stakeholders and reconsider its intentions to impose extensive new forestry regulations in the name of protecting bats from WNS," Paul Lyskava, executive director of the Pennsylvania Forest Products Association, said in a prepared statement. "This was a misguided effort from the start, as there is no research to suggest that timbering or forestry activities are linked to WNS. Furthermore, the restrictions under consideration by the [commission] could have crippled Pennsylvania's forest products industry, with considerable negative effect of the state's economy."
The Game Commission's decision was also backed by Rep. Martin Causer, R-McKean, co-chairman of the Legislative Timber Caucus, who on Wednesday issued a warning that the proposal would be devastating to the timber, oil, gas and coal industries. He suggested the commission was considering imposing restrictions such as a seasonal ban on timber harvesting, mandatory canopy retention requirements, mandatory retention of certain tree species and prohibition of all timber harvesting in riparian buffers.
However, the August proposal included no such listing of those actions. The possible mitigations cited were seasonal restrictions on timber cutting near confirmed maternity sites, protection of hibernation caves, restrictions on human entry and use of winter hibernacula, and seasonal curtailment of wind turbines in critical areas.
Patricia Hippler, spokeswoman for Causer, said his information was based on discussions between the forest products association and the commission, which were relayed to him by association representatives.
Although bats save Pennsylvania farmers an estimated $277.9 million in pest-control costs, Pennsylvania Farm Bureau representative Mark O'Neill said the organization is comfortable at this time with the commission's decision.
Some wildlife managers, however, think the commission is leaving the bats hanging high and dry.
Jeremy Coleman, national white nose syndrome coordinator for the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, said it is the duty of wildlife agencies to pursue protections based on the impacts and threats these species face.
"In the instance where you've got potential survivors [among bat colonies], additional protection is warranted because it will help to protect those survivors and ultimately, ideally, to replenish populations," he said.
In January, the wildlife service updated its bat mortality estimate, claiming that at least 5.7 million to 6.7 million bats have been lost to white nose syndrome, prompting agency director Daniel Ashe to call it an "unprecedented wildlife crisis." The service currently is assessing the status of Eastern small-footed, little brown and Northern long-eared bats for federal endangered listing, with a decision expected to be announced within a year. A federal endangered listing carries with it a suite of regulatory requirements that extends beyond state borders, but Coleman said state listing is an important step and a strong tool for conservation. Turner agreed.
"My biological, professional opinion is that yes, absolutely, listing can provide benefits," he said.
Among the first and most important is that endangered status allows biologists tracking endangered species to work with developers to minimize negative impacts.
Funding for research also typically follows, Turner said. In July, the wildlife service awarded the Game Commission $26,000 in federal Endangered Species Recovery Funds, which are to be used to increase the number of seasonal personnel working on the bat problem.
Increased public awareness is another major benefit of endangered status, Turner said. As the fate of Pennsylvania bats hangs in the balance, he and Coleman agree that the severity of the issue must be brought to light.
"We are not going to have a huge boom again of [bat] population, assuming that they survive," Coleman said. "These impacts to bats are going to be with us for multiple human generations, and it's truly a loss on many levels. The fact that we're losing these predators and these incredible animals is pretty disconcerting."huntingfishing
Shannon M. Nass is a freelance writer from Bethel Park.