long-eared bat
The northern long-eared bat is found across much of the United States, including the eastern quarter of Montana. Credit: USFWS

The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service on Tuesday proposed increasing federal protections for northern long-eared bats in the face of white-nose syndrome, a deadly disease that affects cave-dwelling bats across much of North America, including eastern Montana.

The species’ decline is problematic for agricultural producers, who benefit from pollination and pest control provided by bats. Increased protections could affect wind energy producers, which could be required to change their operations to limit wind turbine-related bat deaths. 

The northern long-eared bat has been protected under a “threatened” standard since 2015, but the agency said this week it is taking public comment on an “endangered” listing in light of researchers’ findings that white-nose syndrome is spreading much more rapidly across North America than anticipated.

The agency said it expects 100% of the animals’ range in the U.S. to be affected by the syndrome by 2025, threatening the species with extinction. White-nose syndrome is caused by a fungus that attacks the bare skin of bats while they hibernate and causes them to become more active than they otherwise would be. As a result, they burn up the fat they need to survive the winter. 

In some sites where the fungus is prevalent, entire bat populations have died. The White-Nose Syndrome Response Team, a collection of government and nonprofit partners working to conserve healthy bat populations, estimates the disease has killed millions of bats across North America.

White-nose syndrome was first discovered in New York state about 15 years ago and has been spreading westward since. Within the past four years, it’s been confirmed in seven eastern Montana counties.

White-nose syndrome, which is caused by a fungus, has been migrating west across the United States and Canada since it was first discovered in New York about 15 years ago. Its presence has been confirmed in seven eastern Montana counties. Credit: White-nose Syndrome Response Team.

USFWS reports that bats contribute at least $3 billion annually to the U.S. agriculture economy through pest control and pollination. 

“Bats are insectivores, so they consume huge numbers of insects, some of which are forest pests and some of which are domestic pests,” agency spokesperson Georgia Parham said in an interview. “That helps [reduce] the use of pesticides.”

Parham said white-nose syndrome is the greatest threat to the bats, but the agency has  also been working with wind energy producers to mitigate another source of bat deaths — strikes from wind turbines. Parham said measures wind companies can take to reduce and offset unintentional bat deaths include tailoring turbine operations to avoid seasons and times of day when bats are most active and conserving locations where bats are known to hibernate or roost.

Parham said the agency has a good track record of working with wind developers on bat conservation measures.

“We have several habitat conservation plans in the works and quite a few that are already completed,” she said.

The animal’s known habitat spans an area of eastern Montana that will soon become the site of the state’s largest wind development. When it’s complete, the Clearwater Wind Project will generate 750 megawatts of electricity — more than five times the amount generated at the Judith Gap Wind Energy Center — for NextEra Energy, a utility company that bills itself as the world’s largest producer of wind and solar energy. The Clearwater project, which includes turbines sited in Rosebud, Garfield and Custer counties, is expected to be operational by the end of this year.

The northern long-eared bat is found across much of the United States, including the eastern quarter of Montana. Credit: map courtesy of USFWS

USFWS says some wind energy projects nationally are already in compliance with Endangered Species Act bat conservation measures, and those agreements will remain in place if the agency enacts a switch to endangered status for the northern long-eared bat.

“Projects covered under this consultation and completed before the end of the year would not be impacted by the reclassification,” USFWS said in a release. “We will continue to work with stakeholders to develop and provide additional opportunities for conservation of the northern-long eared bat.”

NextEra did not return a request for comment by press time.

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Amanda Eggert studied print journalism at the University of Montana. Prior to becoming a full-time journalist, Amanda spent four years working with the Forest Service as a wildland firefighter. After leaving the Forest Service in 2014, Amanda worked for Outside magazine as an editorial fellow before joining Outlaw Partners’ staff to lead coverage for Explore Big Sky newspaper and contribute writing and editing to Explore Yellowstone and Mountain Outlaw magazines. Prior to joining Montana Free Press’ staff in 2021 Amanda was a freelance writer, researcher and interviewer. In addition to writing...