Starting this summer, the timber industry in Minnesota and elsewhere will have to keep a sharp eye out for the trees where northern long-eared bats are born, according to a proposal announced Wednesday that would provide the bat some protections under the Endangered Species Act.
The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service wants to list the northern long-eared bat as threatened, not endangered, in order to keep ahead of white-nose syndrome, a fungal disease that is sweeping west across the country and taking out 90 percent or more of the bats it encounters along the way.
In many states like Minnesota, the bat population is still healthy, wildlife officials, said, but it won’t be for long. The fungus that causes white-nose syndrome has been found in two places in Minnesota, as well as just over the borders with Iowa and Canada.
The most controversial part of the protection plan is the requirement for a quarter-mile buffer around the trees where female bats give birth in June and July. It would require the timber industry, private landowners and other land managers to protect all “known” maternity roosting trees for those two months.
And while that does not address white-nose syndrome, the bat’s primary threat, it is a critical step, said Tony Sullins, chief of endangered species for the fish and wildlife service’s Midwestern region.
“It does buy us time,” he said while researchers try to figure out how stop the disease itself. “I’m hopeful they will find answers. And when they do, we want to have some northern long-eared bats on the landscape.”
But no one knows where or how many of the trees there are.
“Our knowledge of known maternity roost trees is exceedingly limited,” said Rich Baker, head of endangered species for the Minnesota Department of Natural Resources. He said that he can count the known trees on two hands, but in any year “there are thousands of them.”
Installing a quarter-mile buffer around each one isn’t necessary to protect it, said Wayne Brandt, spokesman for Minnesota Forest Industries. Forestry techniques can protect a tree without making the land around it off limits, he said.
“Our frustration with all of this is, no matter what restrictions you put on forest management, it’s not going to make any difference for the bats,” Brandt said. “They are dying because of white-nose syndrome.”
The northern long-eared bat is one of seven winter-hibernating bat species that are being decimated by the disease — four of them are found in Minnesota. This is the first to get federal protection because of the disease.
White-nose syndrome, named for the dusting of white that grows on the bats’ noses, was first discovered in the caves where bats hibernate in New York state in 2007. Biologists say it’s caused by a European fungus probably brought here by cave explorers who carried it on their shoes or clothes. Since then it has swept through 25 states and five Canadian provinces, destroying 90 percent of the wintering bat populations in its wake.
Initially, the wildlife service proposed listing the long-eared bat as endangered, a step that would have brought much of Minnesota’s timber industry to a near halt. It would have prohibited even the accidental killing of the bats and required sweeping habitat protections. But after a year-and-a-half of comments, public hearings and research, the service instead proposed listing the bat as threatened. In part, it was persuaded by state wildlife officials and conservation groups that said listing it as endangered wasn’t necessary.
“It is likely to become endangered within the foreseeable future,” Sullins said. It is healthy within 40 percent of its range nationwide now, he said.
Instead, the fish and wildlife service wants to do everything it can to boost the bat’s numbers. And a healthy forest products industry is one of the best ways to protect its habitat because in any year only a tiny fraction of a forest landscape is harvested.
“There is an economic incentive to maintain forest as forest habitat,” Sullins said.
The proposed rule also calls for a quarter-mile buffer zone around all known bat caves, or hibernacula — there are six in Minnesota — as well as for roosting trees in or near prairies and for highway and utility right-of-ways.
The rule goes into effect May 4, when the threatened status becomes effective. But it could still change in the next 90 days as the service takes more comment on it. One of the unanswered questions is how wind and other energy operations would be affected. Those restrictions are still being devised, Sullins said.
Meanwhile, the DNR has a plan to identify those roosting trees with a pending $1.25 million state research grant. Baker said biologists will put tracking radios on 140 female long-eared bats. That way they can follow them to the trees where they give birth to the pups that live for a month in crevices and behind loose bark.
“We have a precious window of opportunity to study the bat before it gets decimated,” he said.