One of Wyoming’s 15 resident bat species could find itself on the endangered species list because of threats it faces outside of the Cowboy State.
The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service announced in early October a proposal to list the northern long-eared bat as endangered. Populations of the bat in the eastern United States have been decimated by white-nose syndrome, though the fungus has not yet been found in Wyoming.
A possible listing will likely have limited effects on land activities in Wyoming, said Bob Oakleaf, nongame coordinator for the Wyoming Game and Fish Department. Relatively few of the bats live in Wyoming. They breed in forested areas in the northeast corner of the state.
Oakleaf understands why the Fish and Wildlife Service is considering listing the bats, but he does not think they need protection in Wyoming, he said.
White-nose syndrome has killed about 5.5 million bats in the Northeast, Southeast and Midwest in the U.S. and parts of Canada. Some populations of the northern long-eared bat have declined by 99 percent in the past seven years, according to a media release from the Fish and Wildlife Service.
The fungus appears to be spreading across the U.S., which is why the Fish and Wildlife Service proposed listing the bats everywhere, the release stated.
The closest documented cases of the fungus to Wyoming are in Minnesota and eastern Oklahoma, said Gary Beauvais, director of the Wyoming Natural Diversity Database, a research and service unit of the University of Wyoming.
The bats weigh about 5 to 9 grams – about one-fifth of a mouse – and have a 3-inch wingspan. White-nose syndrome kills bats by waking them up during hibernation. They store just enough fat to keep them alive through the winter, which means each time a bat wakes up, its body temperature increases, burning fat and draining its reserves.
“They thought they had enough gas to make it through the winter,” Beauvais said. “But they burn through it, and either starve to death or have to try and come out of hibernation early.”
No one knows when or even if the disease will make its way to Wyoming. If it does, experts also don’t know how badly it will harm Wyoming’s populations. Roosts in Wyoming are much smaller than those on the East Coast, which means the fungus might not kill as quickly, Beauvais said.
The Fish and Wildlife Service listed other potential threats to the northern long-eared bat as “wind energy development, habitat destruction or disturbance to hibernating and summer habitat, climate change, and contaminants.”
Those threats are minor compared to white-nose syndrome, Beauvais said.
“As it stands, I don’t think there is anything you can do to directly combat white-nose syndrome,” Beauvais said. “It’s an unstoppable force.”
Two conservation groups, the Center for Biological Diversity and WildEarth Guardians, petitioned in 2010 to have the northern long-eared bat and eastern small-footed bat placed on the endangered species list, according to a release. The Fish and Wildlife Service did not find that the eastern small-footed bat warranted a listing.