Bats bound for state’s threatened animal list?

Harrisburg — Pennsylvania Game Commission officials like to point out periodically that they manage not just white-tailed deer, black bears and turkeys, but more than 430 species, for the benefit of all state residents.

True enough.

But few of the decisions they make regarding all of those other non-game species could have the impact of their next one.

When game commissioners gather for their next meeting June 25-26, they are expected to be asked to add three species of birds to the state’s threatened and endangered species lists. If they do, it’s unlikely anyone will notice much, said Dan Brauning, director of the commission’s wildlife diversity section.

The upland sandpiper, long-eared owl and northern harrier have always been rare within the Keystone State’s borders. Changing their status – something called for as a result of the state’s second breeding bird atlas – will have only minimal practical repercussions, he said.

But if commissioners similarly change the status of bats later on – if not in June than perhaps before the end of the year – the impact could be dramatically different.

Bats are among the most common mammals in the state. Populations of some species have, though, been decimated by white-nose syndrome, a fungus that attacks bats in their winter hibernacula when their immune systems are at their weakest.

First discovered in this country near Albany, N.Y., in 2006, it’s since spread to a number of states and killed more than 1 million bats, according to commission estimates. In some cases, it’s killed up to 90 percent of all the bats in particular caves and mines.

That’s started a discussion in scientific circles about whether bats should be included on state threatened and endangered species lists. Wisconsin’s reportedly gone that way, even though white-nose syndrome has yet to show up there, Brauning said.

Here, a move like that would have an impact.

But because species such as the little brown bat and big brown bat have been so common and widespread, and because they often use houses, barns, churches and other structures as their summer roosts, putting bats on endangered and threatened status will have real-life human consequences, said commission Executive Director Carl Roe.

Giving bats protection will mean regulations and rules for people, he noted.

“If you need a new roof on your house and you have a small colony in there, you may be dealing with a leaking roof for a while,” Roe said.

Someone who wanted to tear down an abandoned building could find themselves limited in when or how they could do it, added, Commissioner Dave Putnam, of Centre County.

“It looks like we need to do this. But it’s a frightening prospect,” Brauning agreed. “We’ve never faced anything like this before.”

The commission’s plan at the moment is to have ready this month a letter of intent, or first draft, of what bats might need to be protected and what status they might be given. A full proposal could be put before commissioners at their September meeting, Roe said.

The idea will be to give the public as much notice as possible about any proposed changes so that people have plenty of time to offer comment, given the stakes, he added.

“This is a pretty big one. This is a tough one,” he said.

The commission does not yet have a plan for restoring bat populations. Developing one will not be easy either, said Cal DuBrock, director of the commission’s Bureau of Wildlife Manage­ment.

The commission can create nesting habitat for birds within the state, but if they aren’t protected elsewhere when they fly south for the winter, that work is marginalized, he said.

Likewise, the commission can protect summer maternity sites for bats, but if white-nose syndrome remains endemic in their winter quarters, the bats’ problems will continue, Roe said.

Still, the law does not require the commission to have in place a recovery plan before listing a species as threatened or endangered, DuBrock said.

Given that, commission President Ralph Martone, of New Castle, is one who thinks the commission should act now rather than wait.

“I don’t want to look back a few years from now and say we should have jumped sooner. I know we don’t have a plan of recovery. But that doesn’t mean we shouldn’t move forward,” Martone said.

Putnam agreed, noting that while the commission may not be able to do anything about white-nose syndrome, it does perhaps have the power to protect remaining populations.

With bats at this point in time, that likely means taking the extra precautions that would come with a change in status, Brauning said. The commission typically manages species on a population basis, he said. But when populations crash, as has been the case with bats, a new approach is warranted.

“So you have to protect individuals a little more,” Brauning said. “You may have to protect those individual survivors so there’s some potential for recovery.”

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