The numbers are more alarming every time I hear them.
Since White-Nose Syndrome began decimating Pennsylvania bats in 2008, the losses have been staggering.
During last Tuesday’s program on bats hosted by the Pennsylvania Game Commission at their Dallas office, diversity biologist Rich Fritsky threw out some numbers that would make your jaw drop.
Northern long-eared bats declined by 98 percent since 2008, he said.
The once common little brown bat is down by as much as 95 percent. The already endangered Indiana bat has decreased by 70 percent. The big brown bat is faring better, I guess. It’s population has only dropped by half.
Statewide it’s estimated that Pennsylvania’s cave bats - six species total, have declined by 98 percent due to White-Nose Syndrome. In some locations the decline is 100 percent.
A video was shown during the program called “The Race to Save Pennsylvania’s Bats.” Several of the state’s top experts were interviewed - scientists, biologists, professors. One thing about those types is they aren’t quick to sound the alarm, but when it comes to bats the experts used phrases such as “epic wildlife disaster crisis” and “biggest wildlife disaster to happen in the last 100 years.”
Those are hard-hitting statements, and unfortunately very true. But with losses nearing 100 percent, it all made me wonder why bats aren’t listed as threatened or endangered?
The Indiana bat was federally listed as endangered in 1967 - long before White-Nose Syndrome. But all the other species in the state aren’t afforded the protections of being listed as threatened or endangered. With only two percent of the statewide population of cave bats remaining, isn’t that endangered enough to be listed?
Well, it’s complicated.
In 2012 the Pennsylvania Game Commission kicked around the idea of adding three bat species to the state’s threatened and endangered species list. The move was thwarted by an outcry from the industry side - timber, mining and Marcellus shale, who feared that listing bats would be a burden to their activities. For example, listing bats as endangered might mean that timber activities would be restricted to certain times of the year in those areas where bats are known to use trees as maternity sites. It might mean a natural gas pipeline would have to be located “a little to the left” to avoid a known hibernation site.
And then there’s the human component. The once common little brown bat often uses attics and barns for a summer roost. If they were listed as endangered, what would that mean for those property owners? Would they be prohibited from replacing a leaky roof on their house if their attic was being utilized by endangered bats?
I think those concerns can be alleviated by differentiating between natural and man-made habitat when it comes to additional protections from an endangered species listing.
But here’s the complicated part. It’s not uncommon for the PGC’s Northeast Region Office to receive numerous phone calls from people wanting to know what to do with the bats in their house. The fact that people are calling the agency and letting them know they have bats and asking what can be done is a positive. That open line of communication usually has a positive outcome for the bats.
But would people be as open about the issue if bats were considered an endangered species? Would they be too concerned about restrictions being placed on their property that they’d rather dispose of the bats and keep it quiet? Would they be less willing to call the PGC to find a solution?
I think it’s a risk worth taking - and soon, before White-Nose Syndrome provides the ultimate solution to the old “bats in the attic” problem.
Ninety-eight percent of the cave bats in Pennsylvania are gone thanks to White-Nose Syndrome. It may only be a matter of time before there are no bats left to roost in an attic or stand in the way of industry.