TOPEKA (KSNT) – A species found in more than 30 states, including Kansas, and throughout Canada is facing extinction. The species is also set to be classified as endangered by the federal government at the end of March.
Georgia Parham with the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service (USFWS) reported in January that the northern long-eared bat would be reclassified from threatened to endangered status as of March 31, 2023. This is caused by a dramatic decline in the species due in large part to a deadly fungal disease afflicting the bats.
What is the cause of the bat’s rapid decline and what will this reclassification as endangered mean for its future? Check out the breakdown below:
What is the Northern Long-Eared Bat?
The USFWS describes the northern long-eared bat as a wide-ranging species found in 37 states and much of Canada. The species dwell in caves and mines during the winter while spending the rest of the year in forests. It is best known for its long ears as compared to other bats.
The bat lives primarily in two regions in Kansas, according to Fort Hays State University (FHSU). This is in north-central Kansas along and north of the Saline River Valley and northeastern Kansas in the area of the Blue River.
A large number of the bats hibernated historically in the Blue Rapids Gypsum Mine in Marshall County, according to FHSU. However, landowners have indicated that this mine has collapsed, forcing this population to find new places to live. The species is known to live in the woodlands of counties such as Phillips, Rooks, Graham, Osborne, Ellis and Russell.
The bats primarily eat insects picked off the ground or from plants, emerging to hunt at sunset and using their superior hearing to locate prey, according to FHSU. The bats hibernate during the winter, relying on caves and mines at near-freezing temperatures to survive in until spring.
From Threatened to Endangered
The USFWS published a final rule to reclassify the bat as endangered under the Endangered Species Act on November 29, 2022. However, the effective date of the final rule to place the bat on the endangered species list was delayed to the end of March to give the USFWS time to finalize conservation tools and guidance to landowners, federal partners and industry that occupy areas in the bat’s habitat range.
Some of the many problems that have contributed to the decline of this species include wind turbine deaths, summer/winter habitat loss and climate change, according to the USFWS. New highway construction, changes in temperature, commercial development and other factors have all played a part in causing the species to be classified as threatened.
The bat was officially listed as threatened in 2015 by the USFWS and is considered threatened by the Kansas Department of Wildlife and Parks (KDWP). Thanks to the issues listed previously and the deadly fungal disease known by biologists as “White-Nose Syndrome,” the bat is now at risk of extinction.
The USFWS reported in 2022 that bats are critically important to a healthy environment and contribute at a minimum of $3 billion annually to the U.S. agriculture economy through pest control and pollination.
What is “White-Nose Syndrome?”
The leading cause of the northern long-eared bat’s reclassification as an endangered species is referred to by biologists as “white-nose syndrome.” This is caused by a growth of fungus that sometimes looks like white fuzz on a bat’s muzzle and wings, according to the USFWS. The fungus lives in cold, dark and damp spaces and infects bats while they hibernate.
Bats impacted by white-nose syndrome wake up during hibernation with greater frequency, resulting in dehydration and starvation before spring arrives, according to the USFWS. In 2022, it was reported that the fungus had spread across nearly 80% of the bat’s entire range and was expected to impact 100% of the species’ range by the end of the decade. Data gathered by the USFWS indicates the fungus is responsible for estimated declines of 97-100% in impacted bat populations.
The disease was first noticed in New York in 2006, according to the National Park Service (NPS). The fungus is believed to have come to North America from Europe and has contributed to the deaths of millions of bats including the little brown bat and Indiana bat.
The fungus is transferred in several ways, according to the NPS. Bats can become infected by physical contact with other bats carrying the fungus, pick it up from the surface of the cave or mine where they are hibernating and be brought into contact with it by human activity. People entering the spaces used by the bats to hibernate may bring the fungus with them on shoes, clothing or gear.
What is being done to help the bats?
Steps have been taken to help save the northern long-eared bat, according to the USFWS. Conservation efforts include management of white-nose syndrome, reducing mortality caused by wind turbines and protecting hibernation spots.
The USWFS is attempting to reduce the spread of white-nose syndrome by reducing human transmission of the fungus into caves and mines by closing these locations to the public, placing advisories and through nationwide decontamination protocols. A national plan has also been prepared by the USFWS and other state agencies that gives more details on how to respond to this disease.
The USFWS also funds and conducts research to find out why bats are susceptible to wind turbines, how to operate the turbines in a way that minimizes bat mortality and where important bat migration routes are located. Many wind energy project supporters are working with the USFWS to develop habitat conservation plans that provide wind farms with options to continue to operate legally while reducing the mortality of federally endangered or threatened bat species.
Both at the federal and state levels natural resource agencies and conservation organizations have protected caves and mines that are important hibernation spots for bats, according to the USFWS.