Bats have an undeserved bad reputation. Myths about bats sucking people’s blood and spreading disease have persisted for centuries. While vampire bats do exist, they only feed on cattle. And less than one-half of one percent of bats actually contract rabies
In reality, bats are an important part of the food chain thanks to the enormous number of insects they consume and, for nectar-feeding bats, their role as pollinators. Bats play such a crucial role in agave pollination, for example, that you should thank the lesser long-nosed bat (Leptonycteris yerbabuenae) every time you enjoy a nice tequila.
What’s not-so-nice is the fungal disease known as white-nose syndrome that is devastating cave-dwelling bats across the eastern and midwestern U.S.—in some places resulting in more than 90% population declines. For this reason, several species of bats have been listed as endangered or threatened under the Endangered Species Act (ESA).
In December, the State of Pennsylvania and the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service (USFWS) reached a major milestone in bat conservation: a finalized habitat conservation plan (HCP)
for 3.8 million acres of state game lands and state forests. This HCP is significant because it is the first in the country in which a state forestry agency has committed to the long-term conservation of two ESA-listed bats: the northern long-eared bat and the Indiana bat.
Our team prepared the draft and final HCP for the applicants, the Pennsylvania Game Commission and the Department of Conservation and Natural Resources. We also worked with the USFWS to prepare the environmental impact assessment
to evaluate the effects to the human environment of issuing a take permit, consistent with the National Environmental Policy Act
The HCP represents several years of effort to balance potential impacts to—and conservation of—bats from forest management on state lands. Even though most forest practices carried out by the HCP applicants improve habitat for bats and create healthy forests, cutting trees has the potential to impact bats because they use trees for roosting and nurturing their young until they can fly.
This plan will implement several conservation measures, including the maintenance of this habitat, avoidance of potential roosting trees, protection of hibernacula (where bats hibernate during the winter), as well as outreach, training, and research. The long-term benefit of the HCP is that it allows the state agencies to plan at a larger scale to allow for more effective management of forests and improved conservation of these bat species.
Forest management best practices that improve forest health and productivity can also maintain and enhance habitats for bats, as well as other wildlife. Prescribed fire and thinning can open flight space and increase the quality and number of roosts. Maintaining healthy forests and vegetation along waterways helps keep water clean for drinking and also boosts insect populations.
We worked with a diverse stakeholder group including academics, environmental NGOs, and forest product representatives to ensure that various concerns and input were incorporated into the HCP. While maintaining healthy populations of bats into the future remains a challenge due to the threat of disease, plans such as this HCP improve their chances.