Bats, Continued

batBy Will Stahl

Last month I wrote about the first appearance in Wisconsin bats of “white-nose syndrome.” Most of you have probably heard about this disease, a highly contagious fungus that attacks bats as they winter over in their hibernacula––usually caves or mines––where ideally they remain in a state of torpor until spring when insect food again becomes available.

The white-nose syndrome fungus (Psuedogynoassus destructans) infects the bats’ faces and wings, and through the primary effects of the infection and secondary effect of causing the bats to become active in winter kills them by starvation and dehydration.

Since 2007 when the disease was first discovered in New York State, it has spread through 25 states and five provinces of Canada, killing millions of bats. It was long expected in Wisconsin and finally was observed on a few northern long-eared bats (Myotis septentrionalis) in a cave in Grant County.

None of the other 85 caves and mines inspected showed signs of the disease, but given its virulence, the US Fish and Wildlife Service is putting a plan into action under the Endangered Species Act.

Though a highly restrictive endangered species designation was considered, it appears the USFWS will list the species as “threatened.” Under the threatened designation, the service will adopt a 4(d) Rule that will go into effect on May 4, 2015.

This rule will allow a much greater range of activities in and near the bats’ habitat than would have been allowed had the bats been listed as endangered.

Still, most all activities of any potentially disturbing type would be prohibited within a quarter mile of known northern long-eared bat habitat, depending on time of year. In winter this zone would surround caves and mines that the bats use as hibernacula. In summer it would include areas of the forest around known bat maternity roosting sites, usually trees, especially those with shelter such as cavities or loose bark. These roost trees are where the bats give birth and nurse their pups until they are ready to fly.

Given that most bat habitat is in forested areas, many of them in private hands, and in caves, many of them undeveloped, these new regulations will not affect a great many people. But those for those affected, the effects will be significant.

Brian Kleist, vice-chairman of the Wisconsin Speleological Society, which is an organization of cavers, people who are skilled and equipped for cave exploration, brought this issue to my attention. When he first called me, over a month ago, it was uncertain whether the USFWS would go for the threatened or the endangered designation.

The caving community was alarmed because an endangered designation might close down caving completely, perhaps in most of the eastern US. I remember when I began floating Ozark rivers in the seventies, we often visited caves that were shown on our maps. Within a few years we found most of those caves were gated off with steel bars and posted with a sign that said they were sites used by the Indiana bat, which had been declared endangered. My interest in caves was casual, so I shrugged it off, but many people are dedicated, and for them this was serious.

Kleist said his group members were not only recreationists; they also spend time maintaining caves for visitors and restoring caves in eastern Wisconsin that had been filled with sediment by the glaciers. By chance I had observed them at work at Cherney Maribel Caves County Park near Manitowoc. What they were doing was hard, dirty work shoveling sand and gravel that had been packed into these old caverns by the Ice Age thousands of years ago.

The DNR maintains, he said, that humans are a vector for transmission of white-nose syndrome, but the pattern of its spread suggested the bats themselves had spread it. The cavers are scrupulous about following USFWS decontamination protocols and are working to improve bat habitat by opening up more cave space.

When I suggested that people might see their arguments as self-interested, he acknowledged that could be true, but he felt they have good evidence on their side. When I asked who else might be affected by these regulations, he said loggers might be required to stay at least a quarter mile from any bat habitat all year long. I left off with him saying I would write an article about white-nose syndrome and a follow-up about how the new regulations might affect his group and others.

Unfortunately, though I had a follow-up conversation with Bryan Kleist, I was unable to reach the DNR people who would be able to comment on this until too late for press time. That will have to wait for next month. But I still wanted to talk to people about the effect on logging, which is a major industry in Wisconsin.

To that end I contacted Scott Sawle, president of the Lake States Lumber Association. In a phone conversation he told me that the USFWS had not finalized their 4(d) rule and so he could not comment in great detail, though the general outlines were known. He said his organization was relieved they hadn’t settled on the endangered species designation for the bats, as that would have been far more restrictive. Still, the threatened designation will be, “just one more regulation we have to deal with.” It will keep loggers out of the woods for another 15 days a summer and limit areas where logging can be done, since they will need to stay well away from any roosting sites during the summer months and possibly a quarter mile from hibernacula year-round.

That creates a problem since known roosting sites already cover a fair amount of wooded area, and the bats change from year to year the sites they use. Another concern is that more bat species might be listed, increasing further limitations on logging activities. The rules may also affect power line and railroad right-of-way maintenance.

The loggers understand the bats have value, but their activities are not the cause of the white-nose problem. “The industry is already struggling,” Sawle said. Already they are restricted by rules about oak wilt and wood turtles, and in most places they can’t work during deer season. How can someone maintain a business requiring an investment of several hundred thousand dollars if, “they can only do it six or seven months a year?”

The only person from the DNR I could reach in time to comment for this story, Drew Felkirchner, deals with forestry issues, not bats as such. He confirmed that the interim rules do exclude logging activity within a quarter mile of hibernacula, but he stressed these are interim rules. Public comment will be accepted until May 4, which is when the interim rules will go into effect. The finalized rules may not be completed until near the end of the year.

He also confirmed that “take,” killing of species individuals, would not be prohibited as long as it was done in the normal process of logging. He added that if white-nose syndrome progressed as it has other places, there might not be many roosting trees left to avoid, as no bats will be around to use them. “This has killed up to 98 or 99% of the bats in some populations.”

The loggers of west and southwest Wisconsin are not Weyerhaeuser or Georgia Pacific. They are for the most part small operations that buy standing timber from farmers who would like to make some extra money. Though they didn’t bring in white-nose syndrome, they have to live with the environmental regulations designed to manage it.

In the long run, the disease will either drive the bats to extinction or they will adapt and carry on. Given the resilience of life in general, I would suspect the latter, but in the meantime, efforts to save the bats, as necessary as they may be, have profound effects on certain relatively small groups of people.

Next month we will look at what the cavers, people who explore some of the strangest and most interesting environments on Earth, will have to do or not do in response to these new rules.

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