Harrisburg — For a decade now, foresters and representatives of state, national and privately owned woodlands have been attending Pennsylvania Game Commission meetings, always to talk about deer.
Not this time.
When the Game Commission held its fall meeting in Franklin, foresters representing private industry dominated the public comment portion of the meeting. But it was bats they wanted to talk about.
Specifically, they shared concerns about the idea of protecting bats, and about restrictions on timbering that might follow.
The Game Commission in August published a notice in the “Pennsylvania Bulletin” that it was considering new rules to protect northern long-eared, tri-colored and little brown bats. All have seen their populations decline by up to 99 percent since 2008 because of WNS, or white-nose syndrome.
It’s a newly discovered fungal disease of unknown origin.
To protect the bats that remain, the commission’s notice said possible measures “likely will include” seasonal restrictions on timber cutting in close proximity to known maternity sites, protection of hibernacula, restrictions on human entry into winter hibernacula and seasonal curtailment of wind turbines in critical areas.
The commission could also list the bats as state-endangered species, something that would avoid a federal endangered listing and its accompanying “stringent conservation regulations,” the notice said.
Foresters told the commission board the regulations would be devastatingly on their own.
“The Pennsylvania forest product industry will cease to exist,” said Scott Siebert, a consulting forester representing the state chapter of the Association of Consulting Foresters.
“These restrictions would make logging a part-time business in Pennsylvania,” agreed Bob Long, membership representative for the Forest Products Association. “They would be disastrous for Pennsylvania’s economy and landowners while doing little to protect Pennsylvania’s bats.”
Paul Neal of Brownlee Lumber Co. compared the likely impact of the possible changes to what happened in the Pacific Northwest because of protections for the spotted owl. Restrictions on forestry for the sake of that bird cost 50,000 jobs and ruined economies in that part of the country, he said.
Too-tough restrictions to benefit bats would do the same here, he said.
Other foresters pointed out that the commission itself uses foresters to create habitat on state game lands. The possible rule changes could largely put an end to that and hurt species dependent on early successional forest, such as ruffed grouse, they said
“I really believe that if you limit the management of forests for the sake of bats all across the state, you’re going to see some unintended consequences,” said David Babyak, a consulting forester from Indiana County.
The comments heard at the meeting are not the only ones the commission has received. Commission Executive Director Carl Roe said he’s gotten lots of phone calls, letters and other communications on the issue.
One was a letter from the Pennsylvania Chamber of Business and Industry. That group, which represents thousands of businesses across the commonwealth, said the restrictions would put Pennsylvania businesses at a disadvantage, given that they do not yet exist in other states.
Its letter also questioned whether the commission has any data to suggest that bats remain in trouble. The letter suggests that bat populations have “stabilized” since the discovery of white-nose syndrome.
Some new commission data suggests otherwise, or at least indicates that if bat populations are stable, they remain near zero.
The Game Commission asked volunteers to monitor known bat populations this summer and report their findings. Ninety-one forms were turned in.
Most report declines in bats, with some finding only a solitary bat at locations and others reporting entire missing colonies, said Cal DuBrock, director of the commission’s Bureau of Wildlife Management.
Other states in similar situations are looking for ways to handle their bats. The disease has been found in 21 states and four Canadian provinces since emerging in 2007. It continues to spread, according to the U.S. Geological Survey National Wildlife Health Center.
In response, Vermont has already listed the little brown bat and northern long-eared bat as state endangered. Wisconsin has listed the little brown, northern long-eared, tri-colored and big brown bats as state threatened. Other states are considering similar restrictions, and/or closing caves to human exploration.
Still, the chamber letter wants the commission to delay implementing any further regulations.
“With the aforementioned in mind, we respectfully request that no further action be taken on the proposed rulemaking at this time and that the Game Commission convene a stakeholder process so that the PGC and the business community can work together to address the concerns raised by a variety of industries and to develop solutions that both parties find acceptable and consider practical,” the letter concludes.
Roe clarified one thing at the meeting: the listing in the Bulletin was not a specific proposal. No proposal has been put together and no decisions on how to proceed, if at all, have been made, he said The possibilities outlined in the Bulletin were designed only to generate public comment.
The agency will take all of those comments into consideration, said Commissioner Jay Delaney of Luzerne County.
“This is just the start of the process,” he said.