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If regulators list the bat as endangered, businesses could seek “incidental take permits” that allow accidental killing of the animals. But those require a detailed study of habitat, how many bats would be killed, economic analysis and environmental review. “It’s a three- to five-year process,” Baker said.
Federal officials could also list the long-eared bat as threatened instead of endangered, which would give regulators more leeway to allow logging under certain circumstances.
“It’s a complete crapshoot,” said Wayne Brandt, spokesman for Minnesota Forest Industries.
It’s not just long-eared bats that face a threat to their survival. The more common little brown bats — of which Minnesota has an estimated 50,000 — are also highly susceptible to white nose syndrome.
It shows up on bats’ faces as if they’d been dunked in powdered sugar and causes them to wake up in the winter when they should be hibernating. Researchers found this year that the fungus lives in caves even without bats around. It grows into the bats’ snouts and wing tissue. The fungus is not harmful to humans, though humans can spread it.
Scientists across the country are launching studies of the disease and the little-understood bats that suffer from it.
Baker is trying to get legislative approval for a $1.25 million grant for the DNR, which already has a small project going. Enbridge Energy, which is trying to build a pipeline across northern Minnesota, has conducted a study of northern long-eared bat habitats. So have state conservationists in Wisconsin and Michigan.
But researchers are working from behind.
Bat populations are dropping in Missouri, where the disease is now endemic. The fungus was confirmed in Arkansas this past winter, and bats in Wisconsin just across the Mississippi River from Dubuque, Iowa, have died from the disease.
Park rangers started finding dead bats in Mammoth Cave in Kentucky in 2013, where 25,000 bats of various species hibernate in the world’s largest cave system and travel as far as Michigan. Rick Toomey, director of the Mammoth Cave International Center for Science and Learning, said he would be surprised if the dominant gray bats there don’t start dying in large numbers this winter.
Bats eat half their weight in insects each night, fighting major agricultural pests that afflict cotton and corn crops, Toomey said. If they aren’t around to eat the insects, farmers will end up using more pesticides, Toomey said. Bats also play a critical role in pollinating many crops and other plants.
“The loss of the bats,” he said, “is going to shift major things in the ecosystem.”
Adam Belz • 612-673-4405