Chip Minemyer | Political showdown and the little brown bat

March 8, 2014 

Game Commission scientist Greg Turner is on his back in a cave, counting bats.

GREG TURNER — Photo provided

Greg Turner is an endangered mammal specialist, and he believes he’s got a few more animals for the state’s protected species list.

But legislation before the state House this week could make listing species and then protecting them more challenging — if it becomes law.

A Pennsylvania Game Commission biologist based in State College, Turner visits bat caves and dwelling sites across the state, charting populations.

Thanks to a disease known as white-nose syndrome, Turner says, the populations of the northern long-eared bat, the tri-colored bat and the once-prolific little brown bat have been decimated.

The long-eared bat is up for federal protection. The Game Commission has proposed adding the others to its list of endangered species.

“Those three species are down in excess of 95 percent,” Turner said. “Two of them are down in excess of 99 percent.”

Since the bat disease arrived in Pennsylvania in 2008, the picture has been increasingly bleak, he said.

“I just went to a site that should have had 100,000 bats,” Turner said. “We were down to 44 little browns, no tri-colors, no long-ears, a number of big browns. It was like a ghost town.”

State Rep. Jeffrey Pyle, R-Armstrong, says he is aware of the fate of the little brown bat and its winged cousins. But he says the state’s process for protecting animals and approving projects that might be in the creatures’ habitats is too cumbersome for business and industry.

“We know about white-nose,” Pyle said by phone from his office in Ford City. “We’ve known about it for a long time. We’ve had scientists working on it and nobody can fix it.”

Pyle’s House Bill 1576 passed out of the Game and Fisheries Committee in the fall and will be introduced before the full legislative body on Monday. If adopted by the House, the plan would be taken up by the state Senate.

Currently, the state’s Game Commission and Fish and Boat Commission handle decisions about which species should be protected, and which proposed construction projects can be approved relative to the presence of threatened or endangered wildlife.

Pyle said: “Is it reasonable that if you find a bat up in the belfry of the church in your town, that you draw a three-mile radius around it so that you have to go to the Game Commission or Fish and Boat Commission anytime you want to do something? No. It’s not reasonable.”

H.B. 1576 would require that such decisions also go through the Independent Regulatory Review Commission, and fall under the powers of the Department of Conservation and Natural Resources. The bill also would create a public database of endangered species by geographic region, and would require that all species currently under protection be re-evaluated within two years.

Pyle has been criticized for his political ties to the Marcellus Shale gas industry, but he said support for his bill is much broader. “They’re in there, let’s be honest,” he said of gas drillers.

“They like this. But so do the landowners. So do the developers. So do folks with chambers of commerce. Builders are all about this.”

Pyle said the bill is aimed at reducing environmental red tape to free up projects and create jobs.

“It’s easy to sit in an ivory tower and make decisions,” Pyle said. “But I live here in the middle of it. … We’ve got the gas extractors, the heavy timber, gravel companies. And it’s really hard to go to work.”

The Game Commission lists 21 species as endangered. Among them are the peregrine falcon, great egret and Indiana bat. Wildlife officials say white-nose syndrome is pushing more species in that direction.

“We believe every colony in the commonwealth has been infected with white-nose syndrome,” said Game Commission Executive Director Matt Hough. “We don’t have a solution to this problem.”

Hough said white-nose was first seen in New York in 2006, and has spread to 32 states and five Canadian provinces. The fungus alters the bats’ hibernation patterns. The animals wake up more frequently than normal and instinctively head out to find food, in a weakened state.

“They fly out and either freeze to death or starve trying to avoid freezing to death, or encounter predation from hawks or owls or foxes or whatever’s out there,” Turner said.

Scientists don’t know how the decline in bat populations will impact the environment. Some speculate that fewer bats will mean more insects preying on crops and carrying around health hazards for people.

Turner said one report shows bats saving farmers $74 per acre per year in pesticide costs. He said the state’s bats eat on average 4,500 insects a night during the 220 days a year they are not hibernating.

“When you start doing the math, that comes out to more than 900,000 bugs a year per bat,” he said. “They’re doing a pretty good job of cleaning up the bugs around your house.”

So, will the state’s remaining little brown bats be caught up in the political debate over control of development decisions — the collision of progress and the environment?

“I’m a pretty avid outdoorsman,” Pyle said. “I don’t want to go around shooting everything. But at some point, Homo sapiens have to come into the discussion.

“We’ve got municipalities that can’t build mandated sewage plants, and they get fined. How does anybody win? Basically you have to do what the Fish and Boat or Game Commission says if you want to proceed.”

Of his bill, Pyle said: “I want to get it out there, let everybody see what it’s about. ... There’s an awful lot of gray with this issue. But all we’re getting right now is the hard blacks and the hard whites.”

Turner said there is no gray area for the bats, thanks to white-nose syndrome, “but the politicians didn’t seem to think so when we proposed them for protection.”

Chip Minemyer is the executive editor of the Centre Daily Times. He can be reached at 231-4640. Follow him on Twitter @MinemyerChip.

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