The northern long-eared bat, found in Indiana and 36 other states, will soon be listed as federally endangered after the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service finalized a rule to protect the species facing extinction.
Indiana Department of Natural Resources already lists the species as state endangered, meaning populations within Indiana are in “immediate jeopardy and are in danger of disappearing from the state.”
“This (federal) listing is an alarm bell and a call to action,” USFWS Director Martha Williams said in a statement this week. “White-nose syndrome is decimating cave-dwelling bat species like the northern long-eared bat at unprecedented rates.”
The new rule takes effect Jan. 30.
The USFWS endangered listing means “a species in danger of extinction throughout all or a significant portion of its range.” The long-eared bat had previously been listed by federal officials as threatened, which indicated a species "is likely to become endangered within the foreseeable future throughout all or a significant portion of its range.”
Northern long-eared bats have been hard hit by white-nose syndrome, a fungal disease that has caused large declines in populations since 2006. Recent winter data shows the species has seen 97-100% population declines in 79% of its range. Summer data also shows steep population declines since the arrival of white-nose syndrome, with an 80% decline across the bats’ range from 2010-2019.
These declines due to the fungus are the main reason USFWS moved the species to the endangered list.
Researchers in New York discovered the fungus, Pseudogymnoascus destructans, within the winter habitats of bats. This fungus grows on the exposed skin of bats and causes damage. Infected bats will wake early from hibernation before food sources are plentiful and rapidly deplete energy stores and eventually starve and die.
Once a bat becomes infected with white-nose syndrome, there is no cure.
The fungus has spread to about 80% of the northern-long eared bats’ range and could completely cover it within the decade, according to the USFWS.
The white-nose fungus was discovered in Indiana in 2011, and Brad Westrich, mammologist with DNR, said the fungus has pretty much spread to all the caves in the state.
“There’s a lot of research going on about how to remove the fungus from caves or treat the bats being affected by the fungus,” Westrich said. “Currently there’s no way to remove it. If you do go into a cave, even if don’t see fungus growing on bats during the winter, you’re going to want to disinfect your clothes and gear before you go into another cave.”
Bats naturally spread the fungus traveling from cave to cave, Westrich said, but disinfecting gear and clothing is the number one thing people can do to help slow down that spread.
Georgia Parham, spokeswoman for USFWS, said the service is the lead agency in a large partnership working to solve white-nose syndrome.
“There’s research, monitoring and experimental types of testing going on to look at vaccines and other treatments,” Parham said. “It’s a very active group that includes states and tribes and other countries — Canada is involved, too. It’s a huge undertaking by not only the government community but also conservation organizations and academic organizations to try to find a solution to this.”
More information on the efforts and research into the disease can be found at whitenosesyndrome.org.
Bats in Indiana provide both ecological and economic benefits.
“Our environment here in Indiana is heavily reliant on healthy bat populations to be maintained,” Westrich said. “That’s why the work DNR and land conservation and management groups is important.”
Bats in the state only eat insects, whether that is crop pests or insects in the forest, and that keeps insect populations down and manageable.
Parham, with USFWS, said there are estimates upward of $3 billion in economic value from keeping bat populations healthy.
“They control pests for farmers and tree lot growers,” Parham said. “They save these people money on using pesticides and insecticides and pollination is also important.”
Bats out in the western portion of the U.S. are nectar eaters, Parham said, and provide pollination for native plant life.
The new endangered species listing comes after a the USFWS in 2013 listed northern long-eared bats as threatened and offered tailored protections, according to federal documents.
The Center for Biological Diversity, a nonprofit focused on protecting wildlife through legal action, litigated against the threatened designation and on Jan. 28, 2020, a federal court order required USFWS to revisit the northern long-eared bats federal designation under the Endangered Species Act after it found that the agency's move to list the bat as threatened was “arbitrary and capricious,” according to court documents.
Now, after being uplisted to endangered, USFWS will issue a new recovery plan for the species, Parham said. The service will also go back every five years to reevaluate the species by partnering with lots of state agencies.
Each endangered species will have a benchmark or milestone to hit. These goals will help agencies delist a species if threats are reduced and populations increase.
“So what’s factored into those types of goals are assessing the threats remaining on the landscape for that particular species,” Parham said. “It’s also assessing how the species is responding to conservation measures and monitoring its progress.”
Karl Schneider is an IndyStar environment reporter. You can reach him at firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow him on Twitter @karlstartswithk
IndyStar's environmental reporting project is made possible through the generous support of the nonprofit Nina Mason Pulliam Charitable Trust.
This article originally appeared on Indianapolis Star: Federal government to list northern long-eared bat on endangered list