If you contracted a disease that had a 99 percent mortality rate every winter, what would you rather have experts do: immediately find a treatment for it, or remodel where you might reside next summer, even though it’s unlikely you’d still be alive?
If you think there’s just one logical choice, be glad you’re not a Northern Long-Eared Bat.
These bats now die in great numbers every winter, and there’s no disagreement about how and where: from a disease discovered in caves only as recently as 2006. But rather than focusing on disease prevention and treatment, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service seeks to make ill-conceived changes to the bats’ summertime habitat as part of a proposal to list the Northern Long-Eared Bat as an endangered species (“Devastating bat fungus could fell timber industry,” Aug. 19).
Such action would do nothing to address what ails these bats, but it would harm a forest-products industry that provides excellent products and employment across America, including 30,000 jobs in Minnesota.
More than 5.5 million bats have died during the past eight years in 25 states and five Canadian provinces. This isn’t due to farming, wind turbines, forest management or other reasons, but to white-nose syndrome. This fungal disease, which thrives in the low temperatures and high humidity common in caves where bats hibernate, has killed 99 percent of bat populations in parts of the Northeast, according to the Fish and Wildlife Service’s own data.
So what does the Northern Long-Eared Bat’s summer habitat, which includes forest land in Minnesota and elsewhere, have to do with fungus in wintertime caves? While the Fish and Wildlife Service acknowledges that white-nose syndrome, for which there is yet no cure, is the cause of the bats’ diminishing population, it wants to create ways to enhance the population in non-hibernating months.
And since Northern Long-Eared Bats like to roost underneath bark or in crevices of both live and dead trees during the summer, the Fish and Wildlife Service’s preliminary guidance to federal agencies identifies regulation of forest practices as a way to accomplish this.
Among its recommendations are to prohibit summertime forest-management activities within a 5-mile radius of “hibernacula” (the caves in which bats hibernate) and within a 1.5-mile radius of actual and potential roost trees that are 3 inches in diameter or larger.
If you drew 1.5-mile-radius circles around Minnesota trees larger than 3 inches in diameter, you’d find very little of the state left outside of those circles.
If these recommendations are imposed, Minnesota timber-harvesting activities could occur only during the winter while bats are hibernating, effectively shutting down the forest-products industry.
Are such drastic steps necessary? Of course not. In Minnesota, less than 1 percent of forest land is harvested each year, so bat habitat will always remain plentiful. In fact, our state’s effective forest-management techniques actually provide new habitat opportunities for these bats.
There’s no question that bats are important to our ecosystem. They disperse seeds and consume damaging agricultural pests, helping keep our crops healthy. A single bat can eat up to 1,200 mosquitoes in an hour. We need bats.
The solution is not to handcuff the forest-products industry; it’s to find a cure for white-nose syndrome. Just last month, Bat Conservation International and the Tennessee Chapter of the Nature Conservancy were the latest to take up this challenge, awarding $97,000 in grants for research into the disease. The Fish and Wildlife Service needs to quickly explore and help fund additional efforts to eliminate white-nose syndrome.
Because right now, no matter what happens in the summer, up to 99 percent of Northern Long-Eared Bat populations will continue to succumb to white-nose syndrome in the winter. If the Fish and Wildlife Service wants to keep this bat from being further imperiled, its focus should be on the disease, not the trees.
Wayne E. Brandt is executive vice president of Minnesota Forest Industries and the Minnesota Timber Producers Association.