Pennsylvania Bows to Industry, Won't Protect Bats Devastated by Fungal Disease
Press release: Center for Biological Diversity
HARRISBURG, Pa.— Officials at the Pennsylvania Game Commission have withdrawn a proposal to protect three bat species under the state endangered species law, despite catastrophic losses to bat populations from the newly emergent bat-killing disease known as white-nose syndrome. Business interests in the oil and gas, mining, timber, wind-energy, and other industries opposed state protection for the little brown bat, northern long-eared bat and tricolored bat on the grounds that new rules to help save bats might hinder their operations. All three bat species have declined by 98 percent or more in Pennsylvania in only four years.
“Every citizen ought to be outraged by this blatantly political decision,” said Mollie Matteson, a bat specialist with the Center for Biological Diversity. “These species, so critical to crop pest control, are on the brink of disappearing from Pennsylvania forever. If the state won’t take action in such an obvious ecological crisis, no part of the state’s environment is safe.”
The Game Commission had not yet proposed any specific rules to protect the decimated bat populations; it quickly, indefinitely tabled its bat-listing effort in response to complaints from industry that the state’s economy would be “crushed” by protection measures. The commission reported late last week that in addition to criticism from industry it had received many public comments favoring the listing proposal.
Since 2006, when white-nose syndrome was first discovered among hibernating bats in upstate New York caves, the disease has killed nearly 7 million bats across 19 states and four Canadian provinces. Last winter biologists discovered white-nose syndrome in Missouri, marking the first time the disease had been confirmed west of the Mississippi River. So far seven bat species have been affected by the disease, including the federally listed Indiana bat, which has declined in Pennsylvania by close to 96 percent. Winter surveys of bats in Pennsylvania found that overall, hibernating bats have declined by more than 99 percent since the onset of white-nose syndrome.
White-nose syndrome poses the greatest immediate threat to Pennsylvania’s hibernating bats, but other threats include destruction of forested summer roosting habitat, water pollution, pesticides and industrial-scale wind energy. In particular, the tricolored bat and little brown bat are vulnerable to turbine collision and “barotrauma” — death by internal-organ rupture caused by sudden pressure changes near moving turbine blades.
The Center petitioned for federal endangered species listing of the northern long-eared bat and eastern small-footed bat in 2010, and last year the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service issued an initial positive response to the petition. The Center also formally requested a status review of the little brown bat in 2010. The Service is reviewing all three species for possible federal listing, and will render a decision on the bats by the end of next year. Earlier this year the Center, along with the Juniata Valley Audubon Society and other local Pennsylvania conservation groups, won protection for a cave and important natural area in Blair County. The cave, which is inhabited by the state-protected eastern small-footed bat, was threatened by a proposal for a limestone quarry that would have destroyed the cave and most of the surrounding roosting and foraging habitat.
“The Game Commission bowed to vague claims by energy and timber industries that saving bats will hurt their bottom line. Meanwhile, farmers who depend on bats to keep insect crop pests in check are out of luck,” said Matteson. “And while mosquito-borne illnesses are on the rise, the commission’s turning a blind eye to the vital public-health services bats provide by eating mosquitoes and other bothersome insects.”
The loss of bats is a potential economic, as well as biological, disaster. Scientists have estimated that insect-eating bats consume enough agricultural pests to be worth $3.7 billion to $53 billion annually to American farmers. In Pennsylvania alone, researchers estimate bats’ pest-eating services are worth $292 million a year to agriculture.
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