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As its populations decline, a bat affected by white-nose syndrome gains protection

White-nose syndrome is a deadly disease caused by a fungus. It’s killing bats in 27 states including Michigan, and five Canadian provinces.

It was first discovered in North America around a decade ago. Researchers think it came over from Europe, possibly on the shoes of a tourist or caver.

The disease affects bats that hibernate underground, and the northern long-eared bat is getting hit especially hard. It was listed as threatened last April because of white-nose syndrome.

The federal government recently finalized a rule that lays out how the Endangered Species Act will protect that bat.

What white-nose syndrome did to bats this winter

Researchers surveyed hibernating bats this winter, and they found populations are down a lot.

Credit Allen Kurta/Eastern Michigan University
Bats don't typically fly in the winter, but this winter bats infected with white-nose syndrome have been. The fungus wakes them up out of hibernation more often than normal. They get hungry and fly out of caves looking for food.

Allen Kurta is a bat researcher with Eastern Michigan University. He says in some sites, numbers were down by 40-60%.

Kurta says infected bats wake up more often than normal during hibernation.

“And because of those more frequent arousals, they run out of their fat by January, February, sometimes even earlier,” Kurta says. “And if they run out of fat, they’re in trouble.”

He says some of them fly out of caves looking for food in the winter. That’s not normal for bats. They end up dying in the snow.

This winter, Kurta visited Bumblebee Mine in the Upper Peninsula.

He says bats inside the mine were no better off. Many of them had fallen into a pool of water.

“There were bats trying to crawl out of the water, and up onto the rock,” Kurta says. “Some of them made it, but they just couldn’t go any farther. You could tell — they’re just sitting there. That wasn’t pretty. That was a lot of suffering. You could tell those animals were dying.”

Those bats were mainly little brown bats. They’re Michigan’s most common bat species.  

Kurta says before white-nose syndrome arrived, the northern long-eared bat was doing well in Michigan. That’s not the case anymore.

“We’re having a harder time finding any northern bats,” he says. “And that’s not a good sign.”

How the 4(d) rule protects northern-long eared bats

Things have gotten so bad for the northern long-eared bat that the species was listed as threatened last April. This January, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service finalized the 4(d) rulefor the northern long-eared bat.

Dan Kennedy is the Endangered Species Coordinator for the Michigan Department of Natural Resources.

Credit Allen Kurta/Eastern Michigan University
Little brown bats with white-nose syndrome struggle in the water. Some have already died.

“It protects that bat during its most sensitive life stages while limiting the regulatory burden on the public and several different government agencies,” Kennedy says.

The 4(d) rule bans purposeful take — that means you can’t harm or kill these bats anywhere on purpose.

The rule also bans incidental take — which means you can’t accidently harm or kill the bats — anywhere they’re hibernating in winter or raising young in June and July. 

But if you accidently harm or kill bats at any other time, the 4(d) rule basically says that’s okay.

Hal Zweng is with the Michigan Department of Transportation. He says the rule makes it easier to do construction projects year-round. But Zweng says MDOT will change their work plans to avoid cutting down trees in the summer. That’s because bats raise their babies in trees.

“We believe that the majority of our projects are going to be planned, going forward, we’ll do the tree removal work in the winter,” Zweng says.

But there’s a catch to the 4(d) rule.

The rule says you can’t harm or kill bats anywhere the federal government knows bats are raising young in summer.

"Virtually every tree out there that these bats use could be removed. And many of them are going to be removed in the summertime when there's maternity colonies inside, because no one has to look." — bat researcher Allen Kurta

And that’s controversial. The federal governmentkeeps a list of treeswhere bats have babies each year, and those spots are off limits. But if a tree is not on this list, someone could cut it down.

Bat expert Allen Kurta is worried that means there’s a huge loophole in the rule.

“Virtually every tree out there that these bats use could be removed,” Kurta says. “And many of them are going to be removed in the summertime when there’s maternity colonies inside, because no one has to look.”

The DNR says it has a good grasp on where northern long-eared bats hibernate. But officials say they’re still trying to find out where the bats spend the summer. That means a lot of places those bats raise their young in Michigan are unprotected right now.

See this article to learn about research scientists are doing to find a cure for white-nose syndrome. For information on how to help bats out around your house, click here.

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