A cave fungus that’s killing millions of bats across the country is threatening to become a big problem for Minnesota’s timber industry.
The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service will decide next spring whether to add the northern long-eared bat, which is being wiped out in places by the disease called white nose syndrome, to the endangered species list.
Such a decision would trigger a blanket prohibition against killing the bats, even accidentally. That would halt logging in much of the country during warm months, when the little animals roost in the forest and raise their vulnerable young in trees.
Only an estimated 5,000 of the bats live across a wide area of Minnesota, but national efforts to protect the species raise the specter of a showdown between regulators and businesses dependent on cutting down trees. Road and pipeline projects could be affected, and an end to summer logging would cut off crucial supply lines for sawmills and paper and strand-board mills.
“It would be devastating for us in the woods” said Scott Pittack, a logger with a crew of five based in Bovey, Minn. “I don’t know there’s a mill that could survive without summer wood … Plus, we all need a paycheck through the summer.”
First discovered in 2006 in New York, white nose syndrome has raced south through the Appalachian Mountains, along the Ohio River Valley to Missouri and Arkansas, and across Ontario to Michigan’s Upper Peninsula. It’s likely that more than 7 million bats have died, and entire colonies of long-eared and little brown bats have been destroyed in Vermont, New Hampshire and Pennsylvania.
No bats have died yet in Minnesota, but evidence of the fungus has been spotted on four bats in two places in the state — Forestville/Mystery Cave State Park in the southeast and Soudan Underground Mine State Park in the northeast — leading many to say it’s only a matter of time.
While the bats’ problem is white nose syndrome and not its habitat, the threat to the species is so severe that concern for maternity colonies in trees is necessary, said Rich Baker, endangered species coordinator for the Minnesota Department of Natural Resources. He just hopes the Fish and Wildlife Service allows for flexibility.
“Reproduction is the basic building block of a species’ survival, and so the emphasis on preserving reproduction, these maternity colonies, that’s legitimate and that’s warranted,” Baker said. “But it’s got to be done in a way that’s also reasonable, more of a scalpel approach than a sledgehammer approach.”
Need for defense
Northern long-eared bats are small, fuzzy and light brown with oversized dark brown ears. They hibernate in caves.
“During the spring, summer and fall, it uses forest, and in the summer it’s in the forest that they give birth,” Baker said.
Loggers won’t be able to guarantee they won’t accidentally kill a colony of mother bats who are giving birth. Newborn bats tucked into cracks and loose bark would be helpless.
“Those young can’t fly for up to a month after they’re born,” Baker said.
As soon as the bats are listed as endangered, accidentally killing or harassing them would become a violation of federal law. Federal regulators have proposed that between April 1 and Sept. 30 any tree over 3 inches in diameter must be inspected for a maternal colony of long-eared bats before anybody cuts it down.
Bats are critical for the state, wrote Tom Landwehr, commissioner of the Minnesota DNR, but loggers can’t survey every tree for them. The available data is “inadequate to support such a broad restriction,” he wrote in a July letter to each member of the state’s Congressional delegation.
“Given the number of trees removed annually throughout the state,” he wrote, “the recommended surveys are impractical and unrealistic.”
Halt to logging?
Georgia Parham, a spokeswoman for the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, said the instructions for how to protect bats by inspecting trees are not a rule, but a guideline.
The agency wants help from industry and state conservationists to create rules that make sense. It is accepting comments on its proposal until Aug. 29, and will hold online information sessions starting Tuesday. A final decision is scheduled for April 2.
The regulatory options are complicated, however, because the Endangered Species Act is a “blunt instrument,” said Baker.