A bat species dwelling in New Mexico could be deemed endangered by the federal government after its population was devastated by a fungal disease spreading throughout the country.
White nose syndrome was the primary threat to the tricolored bat, and main justification for the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service’s Tuesday proposal to list the species as endangered, which would trigger a federal recovery plan aimed at seeing the species regrow and survive.
An “endangered” designation means the agency believes a species’ extinction is imminent, while the lower “threatened” class means endangered status is likely forthcoming.
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Several species of bats were facing extinction due to white nose syndrome, the agency reported, which mostly affects cave-dwelling bats in 38 states and nine Canadian provinces.
After proposing the endangered listing Fish and Wildlife will produce a final decision in one year.
The disease causes a white, fuzzing fungus to grow on a bat’s face or wings, irritating the animal during hibernation and causing them to wake early.
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This leads to bats starving or dying of dehydration as they struggled to find food before spring when they have not generated enough body fat to last through the winter.
The fungus thrives in cold, dark and damp areas like caves, and has caused a decline of 90 percent in affected tricolored bat colonies across 59 percent of its range.
That range includes 39 states, including the eastern portion of New Mexico.
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Tricolored bats were known to dwell in caves in Eddy, Otero, Lea and Chaves counties in the southeast portion of the state, and further north in Union, San Miguel, Roosevelt, Quay, Harding, Curry, Guadalupe and De Baca counties.
They’re also found in West Texas counties like Andrews or Kermit, and in Mexico.
What is being done to save the bats?
The proposal for the tricolored bat follows a similar action in March for the northern long-eared bat, facing risks from white nose syndrome and proposed to move up from threatened to endangered status, records show.
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Widespread impacts of the disease led to the formation of the White Nose Syndrome National Response Team, made up of 150 government agencies, Indigenous groups and non-government organizations, intended to study and develop solutions to the problem.
This could mean new research on how the disease spreads, and potential treatments that could see the fungus’ growth recede.
At Carlsbad Caverns National Park, addressing the outbreak means limiting its spread.
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The disease does not affect people, but they can track its spores into the caverns on their clothes and shoes, potentially infecting the 17 species of bats that call Carlsbad Caverns home.
That’s why the National Park Service implemented several steps last year after White Nose Syndrome was found in two caves in Lincoln and De Baca counties.
Biosecurity mats were installed to remove possible spores from visitors’ footwear, along with bans on caving gear from infected areas.
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All caving equipment was required to be decontaminated before use in the Caverns.
Rodney Horrocks, chief of resources at the park said personnel are “aggressively” testing for the disease and so far, tests came up negative.
He said Pseudogymnoascus destructans (Pd), the fungus that causes White Nose Syndrome, was likely to turn up at the caverns eventually among the Brazilian free-tailed bats that make up most of the park’s bat population.
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“We are testing aggressively because we feel it is just a matter of time before Pd is found in the park,” Horrocks said.
Tricolored bats were found recently located in gypsum caves around Roswell, Horrocks said, and were likely to migrate into the Caverns as he observed the species moving west, possibly due to the spread of the disease.
“I think that species is thought to now live year-round in gypsum caves in the Roswell area,” he said. “That’s not too far from us and we may eventually find them in the park as well.”
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Fish and Wildlife Service Directory Martha Williams said white nose syndrome created an “unprecedented” risk to North America’s bat population which is crucial to ecosystems across the continent.
The Service estimated bats contribute up to $3 billion annually to American agriculture through pest control and pollination.
“White-nose syndrome is decimating hibernating bat species like the tricolored bat at unprecedented rates, Williams said in a statement. “Bats play such an important role in ensuring a healthy ecosystem.
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“The Service is deeply committed to continuing our vital research and collaborative efforts with partners to mitigate further impacts and recover tricolored bat populations.”
The Fish and Wildlife Service said it would not propose designating critical habitat, which would identify areas where the species could be recovered and restrict development, because it found habitat impacts were not affecting the species.
Habitat conservation plans agreed upon by the agency and landowners could allow development like wind turbines to continue within the tricolored bat’s range, per the Fish and Wildlife Service.
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“The Service has determined that designating critical habitat is not prudent because current or threatened destruction, modification, or curtailment of the species’ habitat or range is not having large rangewide effects on the species,” read the announcement.
“Furthermore, identifying locations of bat roosts may increase risk of direct harm to tricolored bats or modification and vandalism of their habitat.”
The lack of a critical habitat designation drew criticism from the Center for Biological Diversity, with scientist Will Harlan arguing the strongest federal restrictions possible were needed to save the species.
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He said tricolored bats also threatened by climate change and habitat loss from development like logging that reduces the available forest land needed for the bat to survive.
“These bats urgently need their homes protected to stop them from going extinct,” Harlan said.
Public comments on the tricolored bat listing were being accepted until Nov. 14, and a public meeting was planned from 4 to 5:30 p.m., Oct. 12. Those interested in attended can register at https://empsi.zoom.us/webinar/register/WN_O_8ubU2oRe6TKyrJcL5YLA.
Comments were invited at the meeting, or on regulations.gov, or via mail to Public Comments Processing, Attn: FWS-R5-ES-2021-0163, U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, MS: PRB/3W, 5275 Leesburg Pike, Falls Church, VA 22041–3803.
Adrian Hedden can be reached at 575-628-5516, [email protected] or @AdrianHedden on Twitter.