Groups disagree on classification of state’s bat population - Beckley, Bluefield & Lewisburg News, Weather, Sports

Groups disagree on classification of state’s bat population

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Things that fly in the night.

Insects in West Virginia, like in a lot of other areas in the summertime, are ending up splattered on vehicles while residents travel throughout the state’s country roads seeking a vacation destination.

Experts say the number of insects might be increasing each year due to the decreasing population of several species of bats.

Sheldon Owen, a wildlife specialist with West Virginia University Extension Service, said the population of Northern Long-Eared bats is decreasing, while leading to the increase of those pesky bugs.

He said a larger insect population could become harmful both to the state’s landscape and its economy.

Craig Stihler, biologist with the West Virginia Division of Natural Resources, said while a disease affecting the state’s bat population is no danger to humans, millions of bats have been lost.

“This means the loss of the services they provided in controlling insects,” Stihler said. “This could have long-term consequences for control of insect pests of both crops and forests.”

Owen said the insect-eating animals eat up about $3.7 billion in pest control cost savings throughout the country.

“(The state is) looking at increase costs in pesticides, the joys of being outdoors with more insects flying around,” Owen said to a legislative interim committee June 16.

Threats to bat species

With a low reproductive rate as a result of the disease, experts say bats in the state are slowly decreasing, with about a 90 percent mortality rate.

“The most significant impact is White Nose Syndrome,” Owen said. “(The bats) may not have enough energy to reproduce because (they are) fighting off fungus — not having reproduction.”

Before the disease, the bats were found in 39 states with higher abundance in the East, according to U.S. Fish and Wildlife Services. Other threats to the species include wind energy development, habitat destruction or disturbance to hibernating and summer habitat, climate change and contaminants, officials said.

Buddy Davidson, spokesperson for the West Virginia Department of Agriculture, said bats have traditionally been in a concentrated area of the state, so having fewer of them around shouldn’t be much of a factor in the increase of the insect population. However, Davidson said insects are a constant pest to wildlife.

The wildlife service is working with the wind energy industry to address the impact of the bats.

With 11 species of bats in the Mountain State, there are two species living in caves in West Virginia in danger of becoming extinct. Disturbances in the forest can be detrimental, not to the bat population but to their livelihood — what they eat.

Owen said wind turbines also are contributing to bat mortality. He said more than 10,000 bats are impacted by wind turbines as the bats migrate throughout the state and into other states for hibernation.

Barbara Douglas with the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service said the White Nose Syndrome the bats are experiencing had never been seen in North America.

“It’s a fungal disease of hibernating bats that is spreading,” she said. “The first sighting (was) in 2007 in New York; over five years they spread over 1,400 miles.”

Just West Virginia?

The disease showed up in Pendleton County in 2009.

Stihler said it’s possible the bats are hibernating in an area where the disease is not affecting them, such as locations where it is less humid and the fungus doesn’t grow as well. He said the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service petitioned to list the bat as an endangered species and are in the process of determining if it should be listed under the Endangered Species Act. He said a decision should be made by October, but it looks like there will be a 6-month extension.

“This will allow them to gather more data to make a better decision,” he said of the extension. “The big question is ‘will populations stabilize at some lower level than there was here in the past or will the decline continue and possibly lead to extinction?’”

Stihler said the disease has, so far, not harmed any other animals. He said although the Northern Long-Eared bats are getting more attention, the USFWS are also looking at little brown bats and tri-colored bat species being affected by the disease. The Indiana bat was listed as endangered even before White Nose Syndrome, he said.

“Of all of the species affected in West Virginia, the little brown bat seems to be hit the hardest,” Stihler added.

Economic effects of disease

Corky DeMarco, executive director of the West Virginia Oil and Natural Gas Association, said if the bat is listed as endangered, in addition to the Indiana bat, the industry will be “precluded from cutting trees” to open sites and lay pipelines.

DeMarco said if the bats were to be listed as an endangered species, the oil and gas industry wouldn’t be allowed to clear trees from sites during March through October every year.

“That’s the problem we have,” he said.

Pointing to a study done by Alliance Consulting Inc., DeMarco said the bat population is in fact increasing — not decreasing.

DeMarco said it wouldn’t just be the oil and gas industry that could be affected if the bat were to be listed as endangered. He said it would hurt a lot of industries trying to do their work in those prime months, including farmers in the Mountain State.

The Alliance Consulting study said listing the bats as endangered may be premature, and they should be categorized as “threatened.”

Alliance said according to 2013 samples, the Northern Long-Eared bat represents a little less than 20 percent of all bats captured during the summer. The study said it’s also important to note that number has been increasing since 2011 (12.7 percent), 2012 (19.3 percent) and the 19.9 percent observed for 2013.