KANE — With bat populations already down in the Commonwealth, state and federal biologists have now added White Nose Syndrome as a threat to bats across Pennsylvania. The new threat was the topic for discussion at Thursday's Roach Bauer Forestry Forum held at the Kane Country Club on U.S. Route 6, east of the borough.
Greg Turner, endangered mammal supervisor with the Pennsylvania Game Commission's Bureau of Wildlife Management, is a nationally known expert on bats and bat biology. Turner explained there are nine breeding species of bats separated into two guilds: tree or migratory bats, and hibernating bats.
The eastern red, silver haired and hoary bats comprise the tree bats, Turner said. He noted the eastern red bats are noticed more in the daytime, while the silver haired bats are usually seen at night. Turner stated hoary bats are not seen very often.
Turner said there are six species of hibernating bats, including little brown, big brown, tricolored, long eared, Indiana, and small footed. He said the long eared bat was recently reclassified as federally threatened. He said bats have “suffered a long history of cumulative impacts,” including habitat loss, hunting, pesticides, toxins and even cars.
White Nose Syndrome is named for the white fungus which grows around the muzzle and the wings of affected bats. Turner said it can cause bats to come out of hibernation early, which in turn, could lead to death from exposure, starvation, or falling prey to predators.
White Nose Syndrome can spread throughout the populations quickly, and numbers which were once up in the thousands have dwindled to almost nothing, according to Turner. He cited the example of Long Run Mine, which at one point had approximately 100,000 bats. Turner said the number dwindled to 43 in one year.
Turner said little brown bats experienced a 99.9 percent decline in their population, while big brown bats saw a 90.58 percent decline in 2014.
Pamela Shellenberger, endangered species biologist for the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, said White Nose Syndrome is a primary threat for the northern long-eared bat. She said the species is considered threatened and obtained 4(d) status in January. The status means any purposeful take — which could mean kill, capture or collect — is prohibited unless it is in defense of human life, removing hazardous trees, or to remove the bat from human structures.
Shellenberger said the little brown, tricolored, and eastern small-footed bats are currently under review as proposed listings under the 4(d) Rule.
Shellenberger also gave a quick update on the Eastern Massasauga Rattlesnake, which is also considered threatened under the Endangered Species Act. She noted the final rule on the designation was published on Sept. 30, and will become effective on Oct. 31.
The snake can be found in western Pennsylvania, as well as parts of Illinois, Indiana, Iowa, Missouri, New York state, Ohio, and Wisconsin, Shellenberger said. She stated the snake only grows to approximately two feet in length and is “pretty docile in spite of being venomous.” She said their main threats include land management activities, mowing, and forest management. She stressed their mortality rate will decrease in the hottest part of the day, their inactive season, or from Nov. 1 to April 1, when they are expected to be hibernating.
Ben Jones, habitat planning and development division chief for the Pennsylvania State Game Commission's Bureau of Wildlife Habitat Management, there are 1.5 million acres of state game lands over 330 tracts. While the commission's primary mandate is to manage the habitat of the game lands for hunters, other activities such as timber harvests and prescribed burning, also occur on the land.
Jones said entire colonies of bats may be living inside some trees. He pointed out one tree could have hundreds of bats inside, and they must watch which bats they take. Jones said sassafras, locust and red maple are among the species used by bats for maternity roosting.
Jones estimated 17 percent of the state game lands contain the summer habitats for Indiana bats. The Game Commission is not allowed to cut trees or prescribe burns between April 1 and Nov. 15 in the areas where the Indiana bat habitats are located, he said, and there cannot be a harvest on shagbark hickory trees in those areas.
In regards to the northern long-eared bat, 87 percent of its land contains habitats for the species. However, the 4(d) Rule can be enacted and activities are permitted within a half-mile of their known hibernaculum. Jones pointed out there is still a short restriction in the middle of the summer.