Final Rule on the Northern Long-Eared Bat Stops Short of Adequate Protection
With spring upon us and baseball season in full swing, the mosquitoes are starting to join us at backyard barbecues and night games. For those of us wishing there were more bats around to spare us from these pesky insects, the news from the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service (FWS) is not encouraging. Despite Congress’s best efforts to prevent a listing for the northern long-eared bat, FWS has finally granted the species federal protection under the Endangered Species Act (ESA).
This bat on the brink is suffering massive losses each winter because of a mysterious disease called white-nose syndrome. While the disease is the primary factor causing the species’ decline, the bat also faces other localized threats. Logging, highway construction, and oil and gas development fragment its forest habitat. Environmental toxins like pesticides and wastewater from fracking also threaten the species. And direct human disturbance from caving can wake bats from hibernation, causing them to starve to death. Federal protections for the remaining, dramatically declining populations of the northern long-eared bat could not have come soon enough.
However, you may want to hold off on your applause for the FWS home team for this listing. After going into extra innings on a final determination for the bat, FWS could only eke out a ground ball. On the same day it announced its official decision to protect the bat as a threatened species instead of an endangered species, the agency also published something called an “interim 4(d) rule” for the bat. A 4(d) rule for threatened species under the ESA essentially creates waivers from federal restrictions and protections under that act. In the case of the interim 4(d) rule for the northern long-eared bat, FWS granted broad regulatory waivers for a wide range of land use activities that take place in the bat’s habitat. In short,the 4(d) rule (issued on an interim basis) does not go nearly far enough to ensure a sustainable future for this important, insect-eating mammal.
White-nose syndrome has begun decimating northern long-eared bat populations in 28 of the 37 states where the bat is found. FWS acknowledges that it is just a matter of time before the disease spreads throughout the bat’s entire range. Yet the 4(d) rule imposes no incidental take restrictions on any land use activities in the nine states where the disease has not yet been detected. In those states, it will still be still legal to harass, harm, kill or capture a northern long-eared bat, as long as it was not done intentionally.
To make matters worse, the 4(d) rule waters down protection in states where populations have already plummeted due to white-nose syndrome. As long as they stay away from “known” maternity roosts and caves where bats hibernate (called hibernacula) and comply with certain limited restrictions in the 4(d) rule, many damaging activities can go forward. If these activities accidentally harm or kill a “protected” bat, there will be no consequences.
Requiring people to protect “known” maternity roosts and hibernacula is also more problematic than it is helpful. This sends the wrong and strong signal of “what you don’t know won’t hurt you,” creating zero incentive for a landowner to assess possible adverse impacts upon the bat before they alter the landscape.
Aside from failing to protect the northern long-eared bat in a meaningful way, this rule doesn’t include any proactive steps to keep the species from continuing to decline. It doesn’t set forward any comprehensive plan to protect the bat’s habitat, or to advance research on white-nose syndrome, which is desperately needed if we are ever to stop the spread of the disease. This is a tragic missed opportunity for furthering the species’ recovery.
The northern long-eared bat is now in the ninth inning and down to its last out. With an estimated 96% population decline in the northeastern portion of its range, it is clear that this species is currently endangered with a very real threat of extinction. FWS should not be granting sweeping waivers of protection for these important insect-eaters when more and more are disappearing every winter. If the agency allows this permissive 4(d) rule to stay on the books, the northern long-eared bat will be further endangered throughout its entire range. We’ll keep you posted on whether the agency makes any improvements to its final 4(d) rule. In the meantime, make sure you have plenty of citronella candles handy as you enjoy the great outdoors this spring.