If you’ve been following Capitol Hill lately, you already know that we’re facing one of the most anti-science, anti-wildlife Congresses we’ve ever seen. Since January, Congress has introduced over 20 bills or amendments that undermine the Endangered Species Act (ESA). From wolves to the lesser prairie chicken, or even the ESA itself, some legislators seem fixated on meddling with the ESA’s scientific process, and relegating imperiled species to a path toward extinction.
One little critter that has recently found itself in Congress’s crosshairs is the northern long-eared bat. This bat is in crucial need of federal protection due to a disease called white-nose syndrome, which has killed more than 5.5 million bats in the Northeast and Canada since 2006. The disease, or the invasive fungus that causes it, has now spread to 28 of the 39 states within the northern long-eared bat’s range. In the species’ core range, the bat’s numbers have already declined by an estimated 99 percent due to the combined impacts of white-nose syndrome and human activities like logging, energy development, and pollution.
Yet despite this imminent threat and urgent pleas by scientists to increase protections, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service (FWS) has repeatedly delayed a final listing decision, instead bowing to political pressure from the timber and gas and oil industries, which do not want the species listed. And unfortunately, as we approach FWS’s April 2nd listing decision deadline, we expect conservation opponents in Congress to continue to try to weaken the already watered-down decision we will likely see to list the bat as threatened instead of endangered.
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At its heart, opposition to the bat’s listing, and to the ESA in general, centers on economics. Opponents of the ESA, including the members of Congress currently meddling in the listing process for the bat, have long smeared the statute as a business-stopping, job-killing law that cripples economies where endangered species reside. However, nothing could be further from the truth. The ESA is one of the most flexible conservation statutes on the books, and provides many tools and opportunities for private landowners to make use of their land while still protecting vulnerable species and their habitat. ESA opponents, polluting industries and special economic interests have always rolled out dire predictions of economic doom in the face of new regulations or new ESA listings. But these are just scare tactics.
The truth is: less than one half of one percent of all projects in formal consultation under the ESA are ever significantly modified or stopped. In other words, the ESA listing typically produces very little, if any, negative impact on the local economy.
Anyone concerned about the economic impacts of listing the northern long-eared bat should also pay attention to the billions of dollars’ worth of free services that bats provide every year to farmers and U.S. citizens in the form of pest control. A scientific study found that pest control services by bats save the agricultural industry at least $3.7 billion per year. Insect-eating bats make our lives better and more comfortable by eating the agricultural pests that target our food crops, as well as the blood-sucking mosquitos that make outdoor pursuits less appealing.
Another argument some stakeholders have made against listing the northern long-eared bat is that ESA protections won’t do anything to stop the spread of the primary threat to the bat – white nose syndrome. On the contrary, a listing would not only afford the bat the protections of the ESA, but also prioritize this species for funds, grants, and recovery opportunities – including grants related to white-nose syndrome research. And while FWS has determined that white-nose syndrome is the primary threat to the bat, it is not the only one, and listing would help to address other impacts to the species.
As the scientists at FWS approach a final decision on how best to protect this imperiled species, we urge Congress to recognize the inappropriateness of interfering with complex, science-based listing decisions, and abandon its reckless path towards extinction.