Plight of Fungus-Infected Bats Could Lead to Protections in Maine

Jan 22, 2015

A little brown bat with white-nose syndrome, photographed by the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service in Greeley Mine, Vermont, in 2009.
Credit U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service

Maine lawmakers are expected to consider this session whether to add three species of bats to the state's Endangered and Threatened Species list. 

Decimated by a fungal disease known as white nose syndrome, little brown bats and northern long-eared bats are proposed for endangered status, while the eastern small-footed bat would be classified as threatened. 

At the same time, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service is also considering whether additional protections for the northern long-eared are necessary. A final decision is due in April.

It's been called "the most precipitous wildlife decline" in the past century:  Seven species of cave-hibernating bats, millions of them, have been devastated by the disease.  In some caves in the Northeast, northern long-eared bats have declined by up to 99 percent.

"It's been - it's been hard," says Christina Kocer. "It's always hard to continue to see these bats dying, and knowing - especially this time of year, you know this disease is out there.  You know these guys are trying to survive the winter right now."

Kocer is the Northeast white nose syndrome coordinator for the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service. "And it's pretty depressing knowing that a lot of them aren't going to make it as this disease spreads," she says.

MaineWatch's Jennifer Rooks visited with scientists in April of 2013, looking at how white nose syndrome is affecting Maine's bat population.

White nose syndrome was first detected in upstate New York more than seven years ago, and Kocer says, generally speaking, most bat species continue to decline. That's the bad news. The good news, she says, is that there are some survivors. Little browns, in particular, appear to be showing some stabilization in certain sites that have previously been exposed to the fungus.

"That's the exciting part to me," she says, "is that these little browns are still there and we have some banding efforts out. So we've got these bats marked and we've had returns on these bands from multiple years.  So we know these bats have been exposed to the fungus, have been affected by it; some of these have even been seen with fungus on them, and then we see them come back the following year. So we know, for some reason, they've survived that year.  So we do know there are survivors."

Research continues into why some species are more affected by the fungus than others, and how its spread could be prevented.  Kocer says every year scientists learn a little bit more.  

In the meantime, the question is whether to take steps to protect the northern long-eared bat by listing it as a federally endangered or threatened species.  Robyn Niver, an endangered species biologist with the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, says listing would involve two key protections.

"One is where they hibernate underground," Niver says, "and the other is when they are trying to have their babies, or their pups, in the summer.  And so if we can work with landowners and agencies - we need to protect the remaining bats that we have."

Niver says listing would not mean shutting down the forest products industry. Rather, she says, it would establish a framework for protecting key areas. The executive director of the Maine Forest Products Council, Patrick Strauch, says he's still reviewing the proposal, which is expected to be finalized on April 2.  
But Strauch says he would object to any designation that limits forestry activities, since forestry is not the reason for the bat's decline. Wildlife biologist Susan Gallo of Maine Audubon says her group supports listing at both the state and federal levels.

"One of the big things about bats in Maine is that we don't know a lot about what we have or where they are or where they roost or how they do," Gallo says.

Gallo is hoping that listing will mean additional funding to do more research, including surveys of bat colonies in homeowners' attics and barns, where bat populations have all but vanished in recent years.  

The northern long-eared bat's range stretches across Maine and more than 30 other states. That may explain why there's been a tremendous outpouring of public interest in federal listing.  More than 100,000 comments have been received so far.