The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service announced Tuesday it will reclassify a bat species found in eastern Oklahoma as endangered in an effort to save it from extinction. The rule takes effect Jan. 30.
The northern long-eared bat, listed as threatened since 2015, is the fourth bat species found in Oklahoma to be classified endangered under the Endangered Species Act. The status upgrade is due to the effects of white-nose syndrome, a deadly fungal disease affecting hibernating bats across North America.
“White-nose syndrome is decimating cave-dwelling bat species like the northern long-eared bat at unprecedented rates,” said Martha Williams, director of the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service.
The agency is “deeply committed to working with partners on a balanced approach that reduces the impacts of disease and protects the survivors to recover northern long-eared bat populations,” she said.
White-nose syndrome has spread across nearly 80% of the species’ range and is expected to affect 100% by the end of the decade. Data indicate it has caused estimated declines of 97% to 100% in affected populations.
White-nose syndrome has been found in multiple caves in Oklahoma, but it’s hard to say what the effect has been because the state doesn’t do annual surveys of the bat population, said Kurt Kuklinski, research supervisor at the Oklahoma Department of Wildlife Conservation.
“It’s never great to have a species uplifted on that list,” Kuklinski said. “We already treat that bat pretty protectively as threatened. We do a lot to mitigate any take of that species, so it shouldn’t impact how we operate.”
Among those steps are tree removal restrictions. During the winter, the bats hibernate in cracks or crevices in caves, while in the summer they roost in tree cavities or beneath the bark, wildlife officials said.
“The timber industry is extremely conscientious of the practices they employ and the impact it has on the environment,” Oklahoma State Forester Mark Goeller said last March.
The change from threatened to endangered species won’t affect those practices, but extinction of the species could harm the trees where the bats live, Goeller said. It is unknown what damage the insects the bats eat might do to certain tree species, he said.
“When you lose a species, it affects the entire ecosystem, the entire food web,” Kuklinski said.
In addition to forestry, industries that could be affected by the endangered species listing are those that used prescribed burns like ranching and range management, he said.
The Fish and Wildlife Service said that it will work with wind energy companies to reduce the likelihood that bats will strike turbines. These collisions are currently a threat in roughly half of the northern long-eared bat’s range, an area likely to grow as wind energy development expands, officials said.
Oklahoma turbines are mostly in the western part of the state, while bats are found in the eastern third, so there is little overlap, Kuklinski said. The bats live in 23 counties throughout portions of both the Ozark highlands and Ouachita Mountains regions.
The scientific community has embraced a posture of caution when it comes to human interaction with the bats because it is unknown if humans amplify exposure to the disease, Kuklinski said. Gates have been constructed at some caves to prevent humans from entering, he said.
Bats are critical to healthy, functioning natural areas and contribute at least $3 billion annually to the U.S. agriculture economy through pest control and pollination, according to the Wildlife Service. The northern long-eared bat is found in 37 states in the eastern and north-central United States, the District of Columbia and Canada.
First documented in the U.S. in 2006, white-nose syndrome has infected 12 types of bats and killed millions. It is named for white, fuzzy spots that appear on infected bats.
The disease attacks bats’ wings, muzzles and ears when they hibernate in caves and abandoned mines. It causes them to wake early from hibernation and to sometimes fly outside. They can burn up their winter fat stores and eventually starve.
Oklahoma bat species already listed as endangered are the gray bat, Indiana bat and Ozark big-eared bat. Other Oklahoma animals on the federal endangered list are the Neosho mucket, Ouachita rock pocketbook, piping plover, red-cockaded woodpecker, scaleshell, whooping crane and winged mapleleaf.
The longnose darter and Oklahoma cave crayfish are on the state’s endangered list.