WASHINGTON – Rep. Pete Stauber is going head-to-head with conservationists who are trying to save a once-thriving species of bats that is threatened with extinction.
The northern long-eared bat was ubiquitous in the eastern and north central United States until 2006, when a fungal disease called white-nose syndrome began to decimate it and other bat species. The fungus attacks bats when hibernating and creates fuzzy spots on their muzzles and wings. It also causes them to wake early from hibernation, burning up winter fat stores that could lead to starvation.
In November, the federal Fish and Wildlife Service issued a rule to put the northern long-eared bat on the endangered species list.
That made Stauber, R-8th District, well, kind of batty.
To Stauber, the bats are dying from a disease, not from anything that humans have done. Placing the long-eared bat on the endangered species list prohibits any logging or other development in the area where a roost is found. Stauber says this restriction will not save the long-eared bat, but is a blow to Minnesota’s timber industry, and to agriculture and other development.
“This is huge to northern Minnesota,” he said of the bat’s new status.
The congressman has introduced a resolution that would take the winged mammals off the endangered species list.
During a hearing in the House Natural Resources Committee on his legislation this week, Stauber said “the bat’s range is massive,” – it can be found in 37 states – and its new status would hinder projects like pipelines and windfarms that Democratic “blue states” want as well as development backed by Republicans.
But Democrats on the panel pushed back during the hearing, which also considered Republican-sponsored legislation that would end protections for the lesser prairie chicken, a pale grouse native to the southern Great Plains.
“Today, what’s more endangered than the species we are talking about are Republican environmentalists,” said Rep. Jarred Huffman, D-Calif.
Huffman noted it was the 50th anniversary of the Endangered Species Act, the primary law in the United States for protecting imperiled species that was promoted by former President Richard Nixon.
The Democrat also said Stauber’s legislation “elevate pure politics over science.”
But some of the witnesses supported lowering protections for the long-eared bat and the lesser prairie chicken.
Rick Horton, executive vice president of Minnesota Forest Industries, testifying in favor of Stauber’s bill, said the fungus attacking the nation’s bats marched quickly across the United States spread by bat-to-bat contact and by humans visiting caves. He said the plague reached Minnesota in 2016, and by 2020 populations of the small, furry, big-eared bats with large wing spans had crashed by more than 92% in the two primary hibernating areas in Minnesota.
Horton also said that the northern long-eared bat is “adaptable,” and while it occupies forested regions when it leaves its cave after the winter hibernation period and prefers older trees to roost in, the bat is not too picky. And if a bat loses its “roost tree,” it moves to another, Horton said.
“Habitat is not the cause of the (bat’s) decline,” Horton said.
He said the “incurable white-nose syndrome” will continue to kill bats when they live in caves during their winter hibernations. And that “preserving” individual trees where long-eared bats have roosted “is not a viable approach over the long term.”
“It will simply leave forests in an unmanaged condition, where they can be wiped out by random events like wind, ice or fire,” Horton said.
Horton also said the bat’s new status “will impact lumber harvesting” and “result in more shuttered mills across the United States.”
The Fish and Wildlife Service agrees that the fungus is the greatest threat to the bat. But it says that, because it has killed so many bats and populations are depressed, human activities that were not significant before may be so now.
Fish and Wildlife Service spokeswoman Georgia Parham said anything that disrupts the long-eared bats roosting places hurts them.
“Habitat loss may include loss of suitable roosting or foraging habitat, resulting in longer flights between suitable roosting and foraging habitats due to habitat fragmentation,” she said.
The Fish and Wildlife Service initially rejected a bid by a coalition of conservation and environmental groups to extend endangered species protections to the northern long-eared bat. The agency had listed the bat as “threatened” which required fewer protections.
The coalition sued, and in 2020 a federal court rejected the Fish and Wildlife Service’s decision to deny full protections, ordering the agency to take another look at safeguarding the species. The agency then decided to add the bat to the endangered species list, a designation that went into effect on March 31.
The Center for Biological Diversity, one of the groups that sued to win protection for the long-eared bat, says the greatest threats to the animal are logging, oil and gas drilling, mining, and construction of wind energy projects.