On October 2, 2013, the United States Fish and Wildlife Service (FWS) proposed to list the Northern Long-Eared (NLE) bat as endangered across its entire range under the Endangered Species Act of 1973 (ESA). The NLE bat is native to a large geographic area and hibernates or often roosts in caves or mines with large openings. Within its range, which encompasses some 39 states and much of Canada, NLE bat populations have declined. While an insignificant portion of this decline has been attributed to human activities, the predominant threat to the NLE bat population is White-nose syndrome (WNS) – a fungal disease that is transmitted in cold temperatures and exhibits a particularly high mortality rate.
Under Section 4(a)(1) of the ESA, FWS must consider five factors in determining whether to list the species as endangered: (1) “the present or threatened destruction, modification, or curtailment of its habitat or range,” (2) “overutilization for commercial, recreational, scientific or educational purposes,” (3) “disease or predation,” (4) “inadequacy of existing regulatory mechanisms,” or (5) “other natural or manmade factors affecting its continued existence.” According to FWS, where “one or more of these factors imperils the survival of a species,” an endangered listing may be necessary.
The proposed listing of the NLE bat carries particularly significant implications for the natural gas and mining industries, whose activities will require permitting that may be more difficult to obtain should the NLE bat ultimately be listed as endangered or threatened, even though such operations are acknowledged to insignificantly impact the NLE bat population. Several other industries are likely to be affected as well, such as construction and agriculture.
In Pennsylvania, the Game Commission and Department of Conservation and Natural Resources are in the process of preparing an application to FWS for an incidental take permit (ITP) and habitat conservation plan (HCP) covering foresting activities over 3.9 million acres of state land that may provide habitat for the NLE bat and the endangered Indiana bat. As described in the early scoping document for the proposed application, the draft HCP includes setback distances from roost trees and protection of hibernacula as potential impact “minimization measures.” Although the draft HCP, if approved as submitted, would not cover coal mining activities on such lands, it is possible that agencies may nonetheless consider such measures in coal mining permitting decisions.
Recently, several US Representatives from the Pennsylvania delegation sent a letter to the FWS challenging the proposed listing of the NLE bat as endangered due to its potential impact to several industries. Instead, the Representatives requested consideration of listing the species as threatened, which would allow for establishment of special ESA “4(d)” rules that exempt activities that minimally affect the species.
The FWS responded on June 30, 2014 by extending the NLE bat final listing determination period by six months and reopening the public comment period for 60 days through August 29, 2014, based on “substantial disagreement regarding the sufficiency and accuracy of the available data,” including NLE bat population trends and the probability of transmission of WNS to unaffected areas. FWS also pledged to minimize or avoid the economic impacts described above by exercising “regulatory flexibility available under the ESA.” However, it remains to be seen whether FWS will take a cooperative approach towards industries that could be impacted by the listing decision. A final determination by FWS is expected no later than April 2, 2015.