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Northern long-eared bats to be listed as endangered as population drops more than 97 percent

An undated file photo provided by the Wisconsin Department of Natural Resources of a northern long-eared bat. A fungal disease has devastated the species, now listed as threatened.
An undated file photo provided by the Wisconsin Department of Natural Resources of a northern long-eared bat. A fungal disease has devastated the species, now listed as threatened.

White-nose syndrome first started showing up in bats in Wisconsin in 2014.

It’s a fungus that causes hibernating bats to wake up and burn through their fat reserves, eventually killing them.

Since the time it was first discovered, the disease has wiped out 99% of the Northern Long-Eared Bat population in the state.

DNR species management section manager Owen Boyle says before white-nose syndrome there used to be hundreds of bats at 65 different hibernating sites throughout the state.

“Just this last winter, last winter hibernation season, our team could only find three bats at two sites,” said Boyle. “[Going] from hundreds of bats at 65 sites to three bats at two sites, it’s been a precipitous and devastating decline.”

U.S. Fish and Wildlife data indicates white-nose syndrome has caused estimated declines of 97 to 100% in affected northern long-eared bat populations.

Putting the species on the federal endangered species list will help raise awareness and put extra effort into saving the bats.

There have been success stories of species put on the list. But that’s mostly species that saw population declines as a direct result of human intervention.

Northern long-eared bats have the habitat, but it’s a disease that’s wiping out their population.

Boyle says some research facilities have seen success with vaccines but coming up with a cure or treatment is only half the battle.

“How do you deliver a vaccine to thousands and thousands of free-flying bats that aren’t going to sit still for a prick in the arm? That’s been very difficult, the whole delivery system,” said Boyle.

Northern long-eared bats are one of four bat species that hibernate through Wisconsin winters.

The Tri-colored bat, which the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service has proposed adding to the endangered species, has also seen steep population declines in Wisconsin because of White Nose Syndrome.

The other bat populations have fared well despite the disease.

Boyle says bats play a large role in controlling insect populations in the state.

“They eat lots and lots and lots of insects including mosquitoes and pests on our forests and our food crops. Without bats, we’re going to have to find other ways to control pests,” he said.

In its news release announcing the endangered species listing, Fish and Wildlife says it could mean some changes for forestry, wind energy, and other operations in the Northern Long-Eared Bat range.

Boyle says the Wisconsin, Michigan, and Minnesota Departments of Natural Resources have been working with those in the forestry industry to come up with a habitat conservation plan.

It’s meant to minimize the chances of encountering a bat during forest management operations.

Boyle expects Fish and Wildlife to approve the plan.

“It’s going to be a really good tool for forest management to continue and provide that legal coverage for possible incidental take,” said Boyle. “Although, frankly with three bats left on the landscape the chance of take or ever encountering on the summer landscape are just infinitesimally small, unfortunately.”

The endangered species ruling goes into effect on January 30th.

Katie Thoresen is WXPR's News Director/Vice President.
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