- The Washington Times - Wednesday, April 15, 2015

A tiny brown bat known for its long ears is giving the creeps to those fearful of its potential to make jobs in the East and Midwest disappear.

Two weeks ago, the Fish and Wildlife Service listed the northern long-eared bat as “threatened” under the Endangered Species Act. It’s no secret that the bat’s numbers have plummeted, and it’s no secret why: A fungus known as white-nose syndrome has decimated as much as 99 percent of the population in the Northeast.

But for a three-inch creature with a nine-inch wingspan, the brown bat boasts an enormous footprint: While concentrated in New England, the species is found in 37 states as far west as Wyoming and as far south as Georgia. That includes the timber counties of Michigan and the rich Marcellus shale formation in Pennsylvania that has fueled the state’s fracking boom.

In that sense, critics of the listing say the bat can be viewed as an Eastern version of the Greater sage grouse, a species whose declining numbers and vast range make it a useful vehicle for environmentalists interested in stopping natural resources development, from logging and grazing to oil and gas development.

House Natural Resources Committee Chair Rob Bishop connected the dots in a statement issued after the agency’s March 31 ruling, accusing the Obama administration of wielding the listing as a weapon against economic development on behalf of a species threatened not by industrial activity but by disease.

“This decision flouts transparency and will fail to mitigate the real menace to this species, which is a disease called white nose syndrome — not human activities,” the Utah Republican said. “If success here is defined by controlling more of people’s land and more people’s lives, then they have succeeded.”

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Barry Russell, president and CEO of the Independent Petroleum Association of America, said that the “threatened” listing for the bat “does absolutely nothing to address this underlying problem.”

“Every reasonable effort should be made to halt the spread of this disease, but preventing highly regulated oil and natural gas activities from moving forward will have no tangible benefits to its population or the management of white-nose syndrome,” Mr. Russell said in a letter that appeared Tuesday in the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette.

Meanwhile, the Fish and Wildlife Service move didn’t go far enough for environmental groups. The Center for Biological Diversity plans to file a lawsuit calling for a full “endangered” listing, calling the agency’s decision a “significant step backward for the bat’s conservation.”

Noah Greenwald, the CBD’s endangered species director, said the group also plans to challenge the interim rule that accompanied the listing, which allows some incidental killing of bats during forest-management activities as long as the logging is done a quarter-mile from roosting and hibernating.

“They switched from ‘endangered’ to ‘threatened’ in order to create a special rule, and they exempted a whole bunch of things that are acknowledged to be threats to the species’ survival from the prohibitions of the act,” said Mr. Greenwald. “From our perspective, it’s akin to poking a cancer patient in the eye.”

Those exemptions may be the only thing stopping Michigan timber companies from following in the footsteps of the Pacific Northwest logging industry, which was all but decimated in the aftermath of a 1990 Endangered Species Act listing.

“The way the [interim rule] is written, the fact that the bat has been listed as threatened as opposed to endangered, I think it’s something that we could work with,” said Scott Robbins, spokesman for the Michigan Forest Products Council. “And there are things the forest products industry can do to enhance the habitat. We can create roosting trees; we can work with the bat.”

Fearing the next shoe

At the same time, Mr. Robbins says he’s aware that federal rules are subject to change.

“The other shoe to drop is whether these things are taken to court, and we’ll see what the federal court system has to say about it all,” he said. “That’s kind of the way it went with the spotted owl too, you know. The habitat conservation plans weren’t too bad, then all of a sudden there were stays on logging and old-growth logging, and it shut down about two-thirds of the industry out there.”

He said the logging industry affects less than 1 percent of the bat’s habitat. Michigan is home to a large number of hibernacula, which house the bats while they hibernate. Some are located in trees, others in abandoned mine shafts.

What frustrates oil and gas officials is that the fossil fuel industry didn’t receive the same exemptions. The Independent Petroleum Association of America and the American Petroleum Institute filed a request in March calling for exempting all oil and gas development from the ban on incidental bat deaths.

“[The] FWS conclude that natural gas development ‘alone do[es] not have significant population-level effects” on the brown bat, said the March 17 request. “In other words, FWS concluded that whatever [bat] habitat loss is occurring as a result of natural gas development is not significant enough to threaten the survival.”

The groups also said that oil and gas activities have roughly “150 times less impact on bat habitat than the forest management activities that the Service has already exempted.”

Ironically, the industry with the biggest impact on bats is actually the green energy sector, namely wind farms.

“Wind turbines kill bats and, depending on the species, in very large numbers,” says the Fish and Wildlife Service on its website. “Mortality has been documented for northern long-eared bats, although a small number have been found to date. However, there are many wind projects within a large portion of the bat’s range, and many more are planned.”

The federal agency is working with states and the wind energy industry on a Midwest Wind Energy Habitat Conservation Plan that will “provide wind farms a mechanism to continue operating legally while minimizing and mitigating listed bat mortality.”

While timber and fossil fuel development may not be responsible for the bat’s decline, Mr. Greenwald said the species’ situation is so dire that everything possible must be done to protect its habitat.

“It’s true that white-nose syndrome is the most severe threat to their survival, and it’s the reason they’re in danger,” Mr. Greenwald said. “On the other hand, it’s a rare species. If it’s going to have any chance of surviving that, it’s going to need all the habitat it can get. What you don’t want to do is take something that has become incredibly rare and then also destroy its habitat.”

He cited logging and wastewater pools from oil and gas extraction as threats to the bat’s chances.

“From our perspective, we want to make sure that everything [is] done to save this bat,” Mr. Greenwald said. “It wouldn’t have meant the end of logging or oil and gas development, it just would have meant sensible restrictions to protect their habitat where they’re still found.”

Mr. Robbins isn’t so sure. Some of the proposed habitat-management plans have called for bans on logging during roosting in May and June, which he said would be “devastating” to the industry as well as to the Upper Western Peninsula communities that depend on it.

“That’s big timber country up there,” he said. “The timber industry is the backbone of those rural economies up there, and it would be devastating if the timber industry did have to shut down.”

• Valerie Richardson can be reached at vrichardson@washingtontimes.com.

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