WASHINGTON (CN) - The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service will launch a 12 month investigation of the eastern small-footed bat and the northern long-eared bat to determine if they should be protected under the Endangered Species Act.
The agency found that a petition to list the species as threatened or endangered contains sufficient evidence to warrant the review.
According to the petition - submitted by the Center for Biological Diversity - both species of bats are threatened by the fast spreading disease known as white-nose syndrome which has killed over a million bats in nine different bat species since its discovery in the winter of 2006.
White-nose syndrome is so named because of the white fungal bloom of a previously unknown cold-loving fungus called Geomyces destructans that appears around the nose and mouth of infected bats and eventually spreads to their wings.
Scientists speculate that the infection irritates the bats, waking them from hibernation causing them to burn up fat reserves they need during their long winter hibernation resulting in death by starvation.
The petition says that the long eared northern bat and the eastern small footed bat also are threatened by loss of habitat due to extensive logging for timber and to clear space for energy development.
Although bats spend most of the winter hibernating in dens, known as hibernacula, in the warmer months they tend to prefer older forests where dead and decaying trees provide suitable shelter and a large number of the bats' main food, insects. These are the very trees targeted for thinning to suppress the threat of wild fires and, in managed forests, to be harvested for timber.
Fish and Wildlife was over a year late in completing their review of the decision, and the Center for Biological Diversity filed a notice to sue the agency in June of 2010 for not meeting the 90-day deadline.
At that time, Mollie Matteson, a conservation advocate at the Center said, "Bat numbers are plummeting, bat biologists across the country have been urgently sounding the extinction and alarm, and yet the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service is silent.
"These two bat species are on a fast track to extinction," said Matteson. "How close to extinction do these bats need to be before the agency acknowledges the need to grant them the strongest protections possible?"
In response to the Center's notice the agency delegated review of the petition to its Midwest and Northeast regional offices and allocated funding for them to complete the petition review.
During a 12-month review, the agency collects information from the scientific community and public on five areas outlined by the Endangered Species Act: the present or threatened destruction, modification, or curtailment of its habitat or range; overutilization of its habitat or range; disease or predation; the inadequacy of existing regulatory mechanisms to protect the species; or other natural or manmade factors affecting its continued existence.
At the end of the review the agency can reach one of three conclusions.
The first is that that listing the two species is warranted under the act, after which the agency will develop a proposal to list the species as either threatened or endangered. Usually the agency also will begin a process to designate habitat critical to the survival of a species.
The second conclusion is that listing is warranted but precluded by higher priority listing actions. In such cases, the species is added to the Candidate Species list, which now numbers over 250 non-plant species. Each year, the agency reviews the Candidate Species list to determine if it should move forward with a listing action.
The third outcome is that listing the species is not warranted under the act. If it is found that listing is not warranted, petitioners may resubmit their petition as new information becomes available to support the case for listing.
Petitioners can, and frequently do, sue the agency over a listing decision, usually arguing that the agency failed to apply the proper standards in making a determination.