The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service on Wednesday said it will protect the northern long-eared bat as a threatened species under the federal Endangered Species Act.

Their populations have already plummeted in several eastern states because of a killer fungus called white-nose syndrome, and the bats face peril across the continent as the disease moves north and west.

The threatened status will help the federal agency develop plans to protect the species, not just through research to find a cure for the disease but also by protecting habitat and reducing other threats that might reduce bat numbers.

But the threatened status also is a nod to the U.S. forest products industry that had balked on full-blown endangered status because the bats raise their young in trees in northern forests in June and July. Loggers and foresters argued that preventing logging to save bats could instead endanger an already economically challenged industry.

Under the federal threatened status it won’t be illegal to accidentally “take” bats when logging or other legal activity occurs. Logging and clearing of trees and brush for activities such as utility lines are specifically allowed under the federal rule.

It will be illegal to intentionally take, kill or disturb bats or their nests, however, except to remove them from buildings.

As part of the proposed rule to protect bats, the federal agency issued an interim rule - called a 4(d) rule - that officials said eliminates unnecessary regulatory requirements for landowners, land managers, government agencies and others in the range of the northern long-eared bat.

The listing becomes effective on May 4, 30 days after publication of the final listing in the Federal Register.

“Bats are a critical component of our nation’s ecology and economy, maintaining a fragile insect predator-prey balance; we lose them at our peril,” said Dan Ashe, director of the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, in a statement announcing the bat protections. “Without bats, insect populations can rise dramatically, with the potential for devastating losses for our crop farmers and foresters.”

Logging activities could still face restrictions if they occur within a quarter-mile of a known bat hibernation area. The proposed rule makes it illegal to cut down a known roosting tree during the pup season, from June 1 to July 31, and to clear-cut any forest within a quarter-mile of a roosting tree during the same period.

Wayne Brandt, executive vice president of the Duluth-based Minnesota Forest Industries and the Minnesota Timber Producers Association, said the organizations appreciate that the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service opted for the threatened listing instead of endangered status, but concerns remain.

“Today's announcement does nothing to address the reality that these bats are in deep trouble only because of white-nose syndrome,” Brandt said in an e-mailed statement. “They are not in any way threatened by ongoing forest management activities in Minnesota or anywhere else. …

“The threat to Minnesota’s forest-based economy remains real and significant. In fact, the interim 4(d) rule appears to have more restrictions on forest management activities than the draft 4(d) rule the service had previously published.”

Some other groups, including the Independent Petroleum Association of America, said Wednesday that the new rule could restrict the petroleum industry and other development in bat habitat areas.

But Rich Baker, endangered species coordinator for the Minnesota Department of Natural  Resources, said the federal rule seems to find a solid “middle ground’’ between protecting the species and logging interests.

“This is a reasonable strategy for protecting the bat while also minimizing impacts to the forest products industry,’’ Baker told the News Tribune. “The Fish and Wildlife Service should be commended for the effort they’re putting into solving this terrible disease. … That’s the primary issue. But we also have to be mindful of protecting good bat habitat going forward.”

White-nose syndrome was first discovered in New York in 2006. It has since spread rapidly west, wiping out entire colonies and millions of bats, especially in their winter hibernation areas, often caves and old mines. It’s now been detected in 28 of the 37 states where the species lives.

Traces of the disease have been found in the Soudan Underground Mine near Tower and in Forestville/Mystery Cave State Park in southern Minnesota, although no bats have been confirmed to die from the fungus in Minnesota.

But on Wednesday officials confirmed that diseased bats have now been found as close as Thunder Bay, Ontario, and northern Iowa.

“It’s closing in on us now,’’ Baker said.

The syndrome is named for the fuzzy white growth of fungus observed on the faces of infected bats. Infected bats die from the disease, which causes wounds to the wing tissue as well as dehydration and starvation. It often first shows up as unusual behavior, such as flying during the day in summer or leaving caves during their usual winter hibernation, when no bugs are present for them to eat.

Under the Endangered Species Act, an endangered species is considered to be in danger of becoming extinct, while a threatened species is likely to become endangered in the foreseeable future if action isn’t taken.

Northern long-eared bats are common, although not numerous, in northern Minnesota and Wisconsin. They are found from Maine to North Carolina on the Atlantic Coast, westward to eastern Oklahoma and north through the Dakotas, reaching into eastern Montana and Wyoming.

The federal agency first proposed protections for the bats in October 2013 but tipped its hand in January toward the lesser restrictions under threatened status. The agency received more than 100,000 comments on its proposal.

For more information, go to fws.gov/midwest/nleb.

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