Feds: Dread fungus puts bat closer to extinction

By Michael Doyle | 03/22/2022 01:31 PM EDT

The northern long-eared bat has been devastated by the deadly white-nose syndrome, with the Fish and Wildlife Service today moving to list the species as endangered.

Northern long-eared bat

A northern long-eared bat. Wisconsin Department of Natural Resources/AP Photo

Ravaged by the deadly white-nose syndrome, the northern long-eared bat now requires heightened federal protection as an endangered species, the Fish and Wildlife Service said today.

The move acknowledges a deterioration in the condition of the bat, which was designated a threatened species under federal law in 2015. A lawsuit filed by environmentalists subsequently compelled the federal agency to reconsider the status of the species (Greenwire, April 1, 2015).

“White-nose syndrome is devastating northern long-eared bats at unprecedented rates, as indicated by this science-based finding,” Fish and Wildlife Service Regional Director Charlie Wooley said in a statement.


Wind energy projects, climate change and habitat loss also pose threats.

FWS stressed, though, that the bat’s primary enemy “for more than a decade” has been the disease caused by the fungus.

The fungus, Pseudogymnoascus destructans, invades the skin of bats. Infection leads to bats waking up more — and for longer periods of time — during hibernation and eventual depletion of the fat reserves they need to survive winter.

Since its discovery in New York in 2006, the fungus has been confirmed or presumed in 37 states and seven Canadian provinces, with devastating consequences.

“There is no known mitigation or treatment strategy to slow the spread of [the fungus] or to treat WNS in bats,” FWS said, adding that white-nose syndrome has “caused estimated northern long-eared bat population declines of 97–100 percent across 79 percent of the species’ range.”

The Center for Biological Diversity challenged the earlier listing as a threatened species, and in January 2020 a federal judge ordered the federal agency to make a new listing decision (Greenwire, Jan. 29, 2020).

Judge Emmet Sullivan, an Obama administration appointee on the U.S. District Court for the District of Columbia, said he was “not persuaded” by the agency’s 2015 listing rationale and called it “procedurally flawed.”

“FWS disregarded the cumulative effects that factors other than WNS may have on the species when explaining the rationale for the threatened determination,” Sullivan wrote.

The proposed listing escalation under the Endangered Species Act would not affect 16 habitat conservation plans or an additional 13 in development that allow wind energy projects to move forward after minimizing and mitigating their impacts to northern long-eared bats, the agency said.

FWS said transportation projects that already have ESA compliance plans in place will remain secure if reclassification to endangered status is finalized.

The new review found that white-nose syndrome is “expected to affect 100% of the northern long-eared bat’s U.S. range by 2025, spreading more quickly than anticipated across the continent,” according to the agency.

Endangered species are those that are currently in danger of extinction, while threatened species are those likely to become endangered in the foreseeable future. The proposed reclassification would effectively tighten application of the ESA.

As part of the 2015 listing of the northern long-eared bat, FWS issued a “4(d) rule” that’s permitted for threatened but not endangered species. The rule let loggers, drillers and others incidentally “take” the species in states unaffected by white-nose syndrome.

These bats spend winters hibernating in caves and abandoned mines. During summer, the northern long-eared bat roosts in trees. It emerges at dusk to feed on moths, flies, leafhoppers, caddisflies and beetles.

FWS is leading the White-nose Syndrome National Response Team, which includes more than 150 nongovernmental organizations, institutions, Native American tribes, and state and federal agencies.