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Are Federal researchers moving fast enough to protect infected bats? (Photo:  Greg Thompson/USFWS)
Are Federal researchers moving fast enough to protect infected bats? (Photo: Greg Thompson/USFWS)

Vermont green group wants bats threatened by 'white nose' syndrome added to endangered list

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An environmental group based in Vermont says it plans to sue the federal government over its handling of white nose syndrome. That's the deadly disease that's been killing bats across the eastern US.

The Center for Biological Diversity hopes to pressure the Interior Department into adding two species of bats to the endangered species list.

As Brian Mann reports, that could mean changes to timber harvesting and other human activities in the forests where the bats spend their summers.

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White Nose syndrome has spread rapidly to seventeen states.

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Brian Mann
Adirondack Bureau Chief

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Scientists have known since 2007 that something deadly was happening to bats. David Newman, a researcher with New York's Department of Environmental Conservation, first saw the signs of white nose syndrome outside a cave near Albany.

"I'd say before we even got into the cave here in the stream you could see pieces of bats in the water," he said.

Researchers now know that the disease is a fungus that causes near total-mortality in many infected bat colonies. Critics like Mollie Matteson with the Center for Biological Diversity think the federal response to this crisis has been slow and bureaucratic.

"One of the things that we're hoping to accomplish is to bring the Fish and Wildlife Service and the federal government's focus more overtly onto the urgency of this situation. I mean it's been plain for some time now that this is a wildlife crisis of immense proportions," Matteson said.

This week Matteson's group based in Richmond, Vermont filed a formal notice that it plans to sue Interior Secretary Ken Salazar. She wants the Fish and Wildlife Service to add two species of bats, the eastern small-footed and northern long-eared, to the endangered species list.

"The endangered species list requires that the federal government respond to recover species in jeopardy and that's what we're hoping to compel them to do," said Matteson.

 Paul Phifer is assistant regional director for ecological services with the Fish and Wildlife Service. He acknowledges that the government missed an April deadline for reviewing whether the bat should be added to the endangered list.

"Our listing process nationally is pretty backlogged and we have more listing petitions than we do resources so we actually need to get authority from our Washington office to move forward on any listing package," said Phifer. "And we received that authority, so we're moving forward on both of those."

Phifer says researchers should know within three months whether the bats warrant additional protection.

"Through those reviews of those two species we'll gain insight into the value and need of possibly listing those species and of course other species other bat species. So I think its too early to say whether it would have significant value overall in relation specifically to white-nose syndrome," he said.

Phifer also says that the national response to white nose syndrome has been reasonably swift.

"I think we feel a dramatic urgency. This is a true wildlife crisis. We've wrapped up the amount of resources dedicated to this quite dramatically in that time and the amount of people focused on it."

Since 2007 white nose syndrome has spread to 14 states and 2 Canadian provinces, killing up to 90% of bats in infected caves. Mollie Matteson with the Center for Biological Diversity says endangered species protection would give the animals more safe guards, especially in their summer habitats.

"The northern long-eared is particularly tied into older, more mature forests so there could be activities that could potentially harm their habitat that with endangered species listing would have to be more closely scrutinized and potentially modified and in some cases, they could not continue."

The Fish and Wildlife Service is also preparing a national bat management plan in response to white nose syndrome that is expected to be made public in the next month. Meanwhile last month the disease was identified for the first time in a new species of bat in Virginia called the southern myotis. Researchers fear that the fungus could now spread into caves and bat colonies in new states from Florida to Texas.

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