This year marks the 40th anniversary of the U.S. Endangered Species Act of 1973, a momentous milestone for wildlife conservation. When we think of endangered species, most of us picture such animals as gray wolves, grizzly bears or California condors – the movie stars of the environmental movement. But as Coordinator of BCI’s Imperiled Species Program, my focus is on our threatened and endangered bats, which rarely reach the spotlight. This year, however, bats are moving toward center stage.
Four bat species and three subspecies are currently listed as threatened or endangered under the ESA. The gray myotis (Myotis grisescens) has been listed as endangered since 1976. BCI played a pivotal role in the listing process. Our efforts to identify and protect significant cave roosts were critical in what was, until recently, an extremely promising recovery for the species.
The Indiana myotis (M. sodalis) became officially endangered in 1967 (under the less-effective Endangered Species Preservation Act of 1966). Efforts to protect these bats from disturbance and to restore altered hibernation caves had sharply reduced population declines across the species’ range.
The lesser long-nosed bat (Leptonycteris yerbabuenae), a migratory, nectar-eating species that is an important pollinator in the Southwestern United States and Mexico, has been protected for 25 years. We are finding many more lesser long-nosed bats across the landscape now than in the past.
Concerted, science-based conservation efforts produced dramatic results in reviving our endangered bat species – until 2007, when a horrific new threat emerged among North American bats: White-nose Syndrome. This wildlife disease has killed more than 5.7 million bats in eastern North America in just 6 years. Indiana myotis are among its early victims, and WNS was confirmed last year in gray myotis, although no fatalities have been reported as yet. All told, nine bat species have been confirmed with the disease or the fungus that causes it. Up to 25 species of hibernating bats are at risk across North America.
Three new bat species are being reviewed by the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service for listing under the Endangered Species Act after being decimated by WNS. The eastern small-footed myotis (M. leibii) and the northern myotis (M. septentrionalis) are in the status review process. The little brown myotis (M. lucifugus), once considered among the most common bats in the United States, is being considered for an emergency listing. All three species have seen population declines of 90 percent or more in WNS-impacted regions.
BCI is working with the Fish and Wildlife Service, state wildlife agencies and others to facilitate the process. We will continue working with our partners to ensure that aggressive protection and recovery measures are identified and implemented.
As a conservation biologist, I certainly appreciate the benefits that a federal listing of Threatened or Endangered provides for imperiled species. But there are also benefits to de-listing a species when recovery efforts succeed.
With decreased budgets and increased candidates for listing, the USFWS has a long backlog of species under review. This can create an illusion that the Endangered Species Act is ineffective. Nothing could be further from the truth, but those opposed to the regulations and protections of the vital act are working hard to discredit it. So formally de-listing a species that once faced an imminent risk of extinction but is now reasonably secure, is an important goal.
When the lesser long-nosed bat was listed in 1988, biologists estimated that only about 500 of the bats existed in the United States. Since then, biologists have identified several new roost sites. An exit count at a single roost in 2012 reported almost 19,000 lesser long-nosed bats on a single night. With this new information, we can review the recovery objectives and determine if the listing is still warranted.
If scientific research indicates that this species is now at sustainable levels, we will work to de-list the lesser long-nosed bat. It’s important to showcase our successes. We all prefer a happy ending, especially when the underdog is a bat that beats the odds.