Under the federal Endangered Species Act, the U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service announced this week it has listed the northern long-eared bat as a threatened species.
"I think it’s a significant day," said Alyssa Bennett, a small mammals biologist with the Vermont Department of Fish & Wildlife.
Bennett predicted the federal step will encourage more states to also make moves to protect the bat. Bennett said if you hate mosquitoes, you should love bats, because they eat lots of bugs. "They're also eating insects that are detrimental to agriculture and detrimental to the forest product industry," she added.
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The northern long-eared bat and other kinds of bats have suffered for years from the mysterious white nose syndrome, leading to massive die-offs of millions of animals. “For this bat, 95 to 98 percent declines,” Bennett said of the northern long-eared bat in Vermont.
The fungal disease started showing up in New York around 2006, spreading to Vermont, then to the rest of New England, and beyond. It kills bats by causing them to wake early from their winter hibernation. They then starve to death or become dehydrated because there are no insects to eat in the cold of winter, Bennett explained.
"No one has found a cure," Bennett noted.
"In my opinion, this is a major national crisis that needs to get addressed as best as possiblem," another Vermont Department of Fish & Wildlife biologist, Scott Darling, told New England Cable News in February 2009, when the disease was even more mysterious to scientists studying it.
Since then, Vermont listed the northern long-eared bat as endangered on the state level, essentially calling it on the brink of extinction.
The new federal status of "threatened" is like saying it'll be approaching that brink in the foreseeable future. Meanwhile, the designation still allows for certain potentially disruptive activities like logging.
"Sustainable forest management, as practiced in Vermont, is compatible with healthy bat populations," Sen. Patrick Leahy, D-Vermont, said in a written statement. "This is similar to our national icon, the bald eagle, which was highly threatened with extinction due largely to DDT and other pesticides. Once those toxins were properly regulated, these magnificent birds recovered from the brink. Our focus on stabilizing and recovering these bat populations similarly must focus on controlling [white nose syndrome] and on working with states and partner organizations to find and act on ways to reduce non-white nose syndrome threats to our surviving and still-unaffected populations, to aid in the overall recovery of this and other bat species."
Asked how humans can help bats, including the northern long-eared bat, Bennett provided a tangible example. "They love dead and dying trees," she said. "Land owners can keep those trees standing. They may be unsightly to us, but if it's not in a dangerous location, it can be a perfect place for a bat to roost."
She said she hopes the new federal designation convinces more people who may think these creatures are creepy that they're in fact vital to our eco-systems. Bennett noted many in her field recommended the more urgent designation of "endangered" for the northern long-eared bat.
For more information on Vermont’s struggling bats, Bennett pointed people to the website of the Fish & Wildlife Department.
More information on the process of listing the northern long-eared bat as a threatened species, including how the public can comment on an interim rule lifting what the U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service called "unnecessary regulatory requirements" for people in range of the protected bat, is available on the Service’s website.