White-nose syndrome makes environmentalists batty

By Erin Place

The Maine Department of Inland Fisheries and Wildlife has proposed adding six new species to the state’s Endangered and Threatened Species List, including three bats whose populations have declined at alarming rates due to the deadly white-nose syndrome.

Proposed to be added to the endangered status are the little brown bat and Northern long-eared bats, while the Eastern small-footed bats could be classified as threatened. The remaining three species recommended to the endangered list include invertebrates—a butterfly, frigga fritillary, land snail, six-whorl vertigo and the cobblestone tiger beetle. There will be a public comment period through Aug. 15 on the proposed changes.

According to Charlie Todd, endangered species coordinator for Maine Inland Fisheries and Wildlife, white-nose syndrome is caused by an exotic fungus that occurs naturally in European caves where bats live alongside it. Somehow it spread to caves in the Northeastern United States. Die offs in U.S. bats were first reported in caves near Albany, N.Y., in 2006.

He said white-nose syndrome is so deadly because it can kill bats in three different ways. The fungus can cause massive die offs inside the caves themselves. It can wake bats up prematurely during hibernation which forces them to leave their caves in the middle of winter and die out in the elements. The third way is through residual damage to the animals’ wings, which means they might not survive later on.

The first signs of white-nose syndrome in Maine caves were found in 2011, Todd said. His department has an index area it has been watching when the bats are locked down during winter hibernation. But this doesn’t mean Maine bats weren’t affected by the disease before 2011.

“Some of our bats do leave the state in winter. They may have died off in other years, so the impact easily translates across state boundaries pretty quickly,” Todd said. “It’s kind of an emerging crisis coming on so hard and so fast, and we don’t have all the answers, but we see the results fairly clearly.”

And the numbers are staggering.

“Now, the declines in our own winter hibernation sites are more than 90-percent since that sighting,” Todd said about the 2011 emergence of white-nose syndrome in Maine. “That’s how hard and fast it hits.”

Since the disease first arrived in the U.S., it’s spread to 25 different states and five Canadian provinces.

“It’s not a short duration thing,” he added. “The estimates are off the charts that millions of bats have died the region.”

Because of the prolific rate the disease is wiping out bat populations, Maine Inland Fisheries and Wildlife wants the three bats added to the state’s list because if the animals are killed by other means, it further threatens their chance of survival. The department plans to do outreach to land owners and place safeguards on wind farms that will minimize bat mortality, which is now a common occurrence, Todd said.

“Generally, the path out of an endangered species situation is a little more opened-ended,” he said, adding the forecast for bats to be endangered will probably last for another 20 years. “It’s hard to recover from, it takes a lot of effort and a lot of coordinated effort across state and international boundaries.”

According to the website Bats without Borders, bats play a vital role in a number of ecosystems around the word. They’re natural insect control, which helps reduce the spread of diseases, and they help pollinate a number of plants.

As far as conservation efforts are concerned, Maine Inland Fisheries and Wildlife doesn’t receive money from the state to run its programs. If people decide to have a loon or sportsman plate, then that money goes back to the department. It also relies on donations and matching grant money from the federal government, Todd said.

He pointed out that adding species to the endangered and threatened list isn’t always a reactionary measure, but can be preventative as well.

“Sometimes there’s creatures that are just plain rare on the landscape,” Todd said.

Such is the case for the three proposed invertebrates, which are currently only found in one location. By adding them to the list, he hopes that the insects’ decline can be stymied and won’t escalate to a regional level.

Also open for public comment are other recommended changes to list. This includes upgrading two birds—the black-crowned night heron and the great cormorant—from threatened to endangered. Two invertebrates—the roaring brook mayfly and Clayton’s copper butterfly—would be downlisted from endangered to threatened.

Anyone wishing to comment on the subject can send their remarks by Aug. 15 to Becky Orff at becky.orff@maine.gov or Inland Fisheries and Wildlife, 284 State St., 41 State House Station, Augusta, ME 04333.

After the comments have been collected, Maine Inland Fisheries and Wildlife will present its final decision on the list to the Legislature in 2015. Any changes on the list have to be approved by the Legislature and governor.