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In response: Protecting bats pays off for nature and economy

As a story in the May 13 News Tribune explained, the logging and construction industries in Carlton County are threatened by the possible listing of the long-eared bat under the Endangered Species Act.

After doing some research, I found the long-eared bat has been hit especially hard by white-nose syndrome, or Geomyces destructans. White-nose syndrome invades the skin of bats, producing ulcers and causing the bats to leave hibernation early. This leads to starvation and then death, according to the Center for Biological Diversity.

The long-eared bat hibernates in caves and in mines during winter months and roosts in tall trees, snags, buildings, rock shelters, hollow trees, mines, caves, barns or fissures in the summer. Female long-eared bats copulate in the fall and then hibernate, carrying the sperm, until spring when they fertilize the egg. Female bats lay only one pup at a time. It is born in June or July, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service said.

Because of white-nose syndrome, human disturbance, the loss or degradation of habitat, highway and commercial development, surface mining, timber harvest and wind farm construction, as well as many other factors, the long-eared bat’s population across the northeast has declined by 99 percent, according to the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service. More than 40 percent of American bat species are threatened or endangered. White-nose syndrome has killed more than 5.7 million cave-hibernating bats throughout the northeast, southeast, Midwest and Canada.

Long-eared bats are important to the environment; they love to drink flower and plant nectar, which assists with the pollination of flowers. They are vital to the pollination of agricultural plants such as bananas, mangoes, cashews and many other crops for farmers. Without the pollination and seed dispersing that bats provide, ecosystems would die and plants would fail to provide food and cover for wildlife species near the base of the food chain, as the Endangered Species Handbook explained this year.

Because bats are voracious insect eaters — smaller bats are known to eat about 300 insects per hour while larger bats can consume up to 1,000 insects per hour — they reduce the need for pesticides in agriculture and assist with controlling viruses spread by mosquitos and insects, including west Nile virus. Many insects can hear bats up to 100 feet away and avoid areas populated by bats.

Bats have been found to be useful in other ways, as well. Scientists have been testing bat saliva, which contains an anticoagulant that may be used by heart patients. And bats produce guano (manure) that is rich in nitrogen used to fertilize lawns and gardens.

A study conducted in 2011 by Science Magazine examined the economic impact of bat populations and found that in Wisconsin alone bats provided an economic benefit of

$658 million to $1.5 billion.

While protecting the long-eared bat may inconvenience road construction and building crews, commercial development and the timber industry, and while protection may require special permits from June through August and special precautions to ensure bat habitats are protected in May and September, these inconveniences are a small price to pay to ensure the survival of a mammal that is very important to our ecological survival. The benefits of the long-eared bat as well as other bat species are immeasurable. The benefits of ensuring their survival far outweigh the benefits provided by the construction and timber industries.

We have to consider the long-term ramifications of not protecting species of wildlife and the costs that could result. The timber industry, construction and mining, and wind farm construction are important to the immediacy of employment and financial stabilization of families and the economy; however, the long-term costs to families and the economy are greater if we decide not to protect long-eared bats, their habitat and related species.

Sheryl Murphy of Hopkins, Minn., is a security specialist active in protecting wildlife and the environment. She has done extensive independent research on bats and their listing as protected.