Northern long-eared bat reclassified as endangered

— From the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service

The northern long-eared bat (Myotis septentrionalis) has been reclassified as endangered.

ALBANY COUNTY — The northern long-eared bat, which typically was found throughout Albany County, is being reclassified as endangered under the Endangered Species Act, the United States Fish and Wildlife Service announced on Tuesday.

The bat, listed as threatened in 2015, now faces extinction due to the rangewide impacts of white-nose syndrome, a deadly disease affecting hibernating bats across North America, according to a Nov. 29 release from the Service.

The new rule takes effect on Jan. 30, 2023.

“This listing is an alarm bell and a call to action,” said U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service Director Martha Williams in the release. “White-nose syndrome is decimating cave-dwelling bat species like the northern long-eared bat at unprecedented rates. The Service is deeply committed to working with partners on a balanced approach that reduces the impacts of disease and protects the survivors to recover northern long-eared bat populations.”

In April, the Northeast Cave Conservancy received a $8,229 grant from the state’s Department of Environmental Conservation, which its president, Bob Simmons, said would be put toward “survey and legal costs associated with the donation of 4.76 acres of land which was combined into our existing preserve” in Clarksville.

Quoting from the conservancy’s application for the grant, Simmons said in an email to The Enterprise, “Clarksville Cave is the most popular recreational undeveloped (wild) cave in the northeastern USA. The Cave is used by bats as a winter hibernaculum …. the Northern Long-Eared Bat, has been reported in the cave historically,”

Bats are critical to healthy, functioning natural areas and contribute at least $3 billion annually to the U.S. agriculture economy through pest control and pollination, according to the Service’s Nov. 29 release.

The northern long-eared bat is found in 37 states in the eastern and north central United States, the District of Columbia, and all Canadian provinces from the Atlantic Coast west to the southern Northwest Territories and eastern British Columbia.

These bats mostly spend the winter hibernating in caves and abandoned mines. During summer, northern long-eared bats roost alone or in small colonies underneath bark or in cavities or crevices of both live and dead trees. They emerge at dusk to fly primarily through the understory of forested areas, feeding on insects.

This means that, when trees are to be cut for projects, as last March for a gas pipeline in Guilderland, the trees have to be felled before an April 1 deadline set by the DEC.

The DEC anticipates the northern long-eared bats moving from their winter home at the Watervliet Reservoir in Guilderland to within a five-mile circle of trees for the spring and summer, Guilderland supervisor Peter Barber told The Enterprise last spring. 

“It doesn’t mean they’re there,” he said of the bats, but they could be.

This directive became controversial in Guilderland in 2020 when Pyramid, owner of Crossgates Mall, cut trees to make way for a Costco, citing the need to do so to beat the deadline meant to protect the northern long-eared bats while advocates from Save the Pine Bush said the land had not been properly surveyed for the bats.

The directive was also controversial in 2019 when Guilderland officials gave a developer permission to take down trees to build a road before getting final plat approval for the proposed subdivision. The reason was that the area between Hurst Road and Route 146 has been identified as a habitat for the northern long-eared bat, and the DEC prohibits cutting trees in these habitat areas between April 1 and Oct. 31. 

“The Service recognizes that the change to endangered status may prompt questions about establishing ESA compliance for forestry, wind energy, infrastructure and other projects in the range of the northern long-eared bat,” the release said. “We are committed to working proactively with stakeholders to conserve remaining northern long-eared bats while reducing impacts to landowners. The Service has a strong foundation in place for working with stakeholders to conserve listed bats while allowing economic activities within the range to continue to occur.”

Since the species was listed as threatened in 2015, the Service has approved more than 22 habitat conservation plans that allow wind energy and forestry projects to proceed after minimizing and mitigating their impacts to northern long-eared bats.

Several new tools have been prepared to help guide project managers through consultation once the change in status takes effect, the release said.


White-nose syndrome

In 2007, The Enterprise first wrote about the unusual deaths of bats in Albany County before scientists had named white-nose syndrome.

That year, a DEC survey of Hailes Cave in Thacher State Park counted just 7,000 bats wintering over rather than the usual 27,000.

“Something odd is going on,” said Alan Hicks, a DEC wildlife biologist, at the time, who noted how unusual it was to find dead bats in the cave. “The dead bats in the cave are only a fraction of the bats that died,” he told The Enterprise.

Residents were finding bats dead on their front lawns or huddled on window sills.

Ward Stone, who was then the state’s wildlife pathologist, told The Enterprise then that the problem wasn’t just in Albany County; he’d  heard similar reports of deaths in Saratoga County, Columbia County, and Rensselaer County.

“Somehow, they ran out of gas,” Stone said of the bats running out of energy, speculating it might have to do with global warming. When the bats used up their energy stores, he said, they came out looking for food and got caught in the cold. “That’’s just a theory,” Stone said in 2007. “This is a problem that needs a lot more research.”

White-nose syndrome, the disease driving the bats’ decline, scientists have since discovered, is caused by the growth of a fungus that sometimes looks like white fuzz on bats’ muzzles and wings. The fungus thrives in cold, dark, damp places and infects bats during hibernation.

Likely caused by an exotic fungus from Europe, Pseudogymnoascus destructans, the syndrome started in New York State in 2006, according to the National Park Service; there are no cases of it affecting humans.

Impacted bats wake up more frequently, which often results in dehydration and starvation before spring arrives. Bats are the only species of wildlife known to be affected by white-nose syndrome, which has been confirmed in 38 states and eight Canadian provinces.

White-nose syndrome has spread across nearly 80 percent of the species’ entire range and is expected to affect 100 percent of the species’ range by the end of the decade.

The change in the species’ status, the release said, comes after an in-depth review found that the northern long-eared bat continues to decline and now meets the definition of an endangered species under the Endangered Species Act.

Data indicate white-nose syndrome has caused estimated declines of 97 to 100 percent in affected northern long-eared bat populations.

To address the growing threat of white-nose syndrome to the northern long-eared bat and other bats across North America, the Service is leading the White-nose Syndrome National Response Team, a coordinated effort of more than 150 non-governmental organizations, institutions, Tribes, and state and federal agencies.

“Together,” the release said, “we are conducting critical white-nose syndrome research and developing management strategies to minimize impacts of the disease and recover affected bat populations. To date, this effort has yielded scientific advancements that include identification of critical information about white-nose syndrome and its impacts on North American bat species.

“We developed and are using disease surveillance tools to monitor spread and impacts, and we’re testing biological, chemical, immunological, genetic and mechanical treatments in a number of states to improve bat survival.”

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