Duluth, Minn. (AP) — The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service has announced mounting evidence to protect two bat species hard-hit by a killer fungus called white nose syndrome.
The agency said this week that northern long-eared myotis bats, which are found in Minnesota and Wisconsin, and eastern small-footed myotis bats probably deserve federal protections under the Endangered Species Act.
Both species have small and declining populations but also have recently been among the many species of hibernating bats devastated by white nose syndrome, a relatively newfound fungus that has killed more than a million bats in eastern states and Canada in less than five years.
Fish and Wildlife Service officials also said they are collecting information on several other bat species that are dying from white nose syndrome to determine whether the disease may be increasing their extinction risk. Those include Minnesota's most common bat, the little brown myotis, which has been especially hard-hit by white nose syndrome in eastern states.
The agency also is looking at big brown, tri-colored, cave myotis and southeastern myotis for possible federal protection.
So far white nose syndrome, named for a white growth on the muzzle of stricken bats, has not been found in Minnesota or Wisconsin. But it has moved as close as Missouri, Indiana and eastern Ontario near Lake Superior since first being discovered near Albany, N.Y., in 2006.
It's believed the disease came to the U.S. from Europe and is causing a skin infection that destroys bat wings and causes bats to wake up during hibernation — when no insects are available to eat — with bats eventually succumbing to starvation, dehydration and the effects of the infection itself.
Because so many bats have died so quickly, with no end in sight, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service has called white nose syndrome the "worst wildlife health crisis in memory."
Bats are considered an important part of many ecosystems, eating tons of insects in forested area such as the Northland. Some bats can eat their weight in mosquitoes each night. And such a rapid decline in any wildlife is considered alarming.
"Hibernating bats across the eastern U.S. are dying by the millions," said Mollie Matteson, conservation advocate for the Center for Biological Diversity, which petitioned the federal agency to protect the bats, on Tuesday. "We hope today's announcement will serve as a wakeup call for urgent action to save our bats."
The group said habitat loss, human disturbance in hibernation sites and pollution may also be affecting the bats.
Wildlife officials in both Minnesota and Wisconsin have formed plans to deal with the disease once it is found, although so far it has proved nearly 100 percent fatal with no known cure.
Gerda Nordquist, bat expert for the Minnesota Department of Natural Resources, said the northern long-eared myotis is not numerous in Minnesota but is found throughout the state. The species has been listed by Minnesota as a "special-concern species" since the state list was created.
If the federal government does give the two species endangered or threatened status, "Minnesota would likely upgrade the state status as well," Nordquist said. That means the species would have legal protection, which it currently does not have as a special-concern species.
Eastern small-footed myotis have not been documented in the state but have been found in Manitoba, so they could potentially be in Minnesota, she added.
The northern long-eared bat's range extends from eastern North America across to the Midwest and northward across Canada and, true to its name, has long ears that, when pointed forward, extend past the muzzle. It is strongly associated with older forests with big trees. The bats hibernate in caves and abandoned mines in winter, where they become susceptible to white nose syndrome because of bat-to-bat contact in close quarters.
This week's announcement is just the first step in a long process to formally list the two bat species as either threatened or endangered that will involve public comment and scientific review. Federal listing could protect habitat for the bats, including caves and abandoned mine shafts.
The Soudan mine shaft on the Iron Range is home to an estimated 10,000 bats.
Information from: Duluth News Tribune, http://www.duluthsuperior.com
Copyright 2011 The Associated Press.