Greg Turner hoisted himself up with a rope from an unlighted 20-foot pit in an abandoned mine in Durham, Pennsylvania. His task of counting bats didn’t take long -- just seven where five years ago there were 4,000.
“There’s nobody home, basically, at this point,” said Turner, an endangered-mammal specialist at the Pennsylvania Game Commission. The agency wants to set up bat protections that threaten human livelihoods, say the state’s leading business lobby and lumber industry, which accounts for about 5 percent of U.S. jobs in that field.
A flesh-eating disease called white-nose syndrome has killed more than 5.7 million bats in the eastern U.S. and Canada since its discovery in a New York cave in 2006. Pennsylvania has had the most precipitous decline, according to Bat Conservation International. The game commission, which manages wildlife and habitats, has proposed placing three species on the state’s endangered list, as was done in Wisconsin and Vermont.
The Pennsylvania Forest Products Association, based in Harrisburg, says a listing might lead to a ban on tree removals, making it nearly impossible for businesses to recover from the 18-month recession that ended in 2009. The association represents companies such as Montreal-based Domtar Corp. and Temple Inland, a division of Memphis, Tennessee-based International Paper.
Commission officials say any restrictions would be the result of compromise.
“Pennsylvania has the most controversy,” said Mylea Bayless, director of conservation programs at Bat Conservation International, a research group in Austin, Texas. “It is the latest example that people perceive that economics is going to be in conflict with conservation.”
The need to preserve animals has conflicted with the needs of humans -- and business -- for decades. Efforts to protect the Santa Ana sucker fish in California, the Jollyville Plateau salamanders in Texas and the snail darter, a perch-like fish that delayed the construction of the Tellico Dam in the Little Tennessee River in 1973, all set off similar discord.
Pennsylvania’s bats are threatened by white-nose syndrome, caused by a fungus that penetrates their skin, rousing them during hibernation, depleting fat reserves and killing them by starving or freezing. The disease has spread as far west as Missouri. When infected, colonies decline by 95 percent within two to three years, said the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, which calls such mortality unprecedented.
“It’s the most devastating wildlife disease that we know of that has ever hit North America,” said Cal Butchkoski, supervisor of the mammal section of Pennsylvania’s wildlife diversity program.
The disease, for which there’s no known cure, was first spotted in the Keystone State in December 2008, and massive deaths began the next winter. There has been a near annihilation: Since 2008, surveys have shown a 99 percent drop in northern long-eared bats and little brown bats and 98 percent decline in tricolored bats, according to the commission.
This throws the ecosystem off balance, as every 1 million bats eat 700 tons of insects a year, according to Bat Conservation International. The deaths in North America could mean at least $3.7 billion in agricultural losses annually, according to an analysis by biologists published in Science magazine in 2011.
At Durham Mine, once Pennsylvania’s second-biggest habitat for hibernating bats, about 10,000 were counted in 1997, according to the Heritage Conservancy, a Doylestown-based nonprofit that owns it. Two years ago, surveyors found 180, Turner said. He counted just 23 during his Feb. 21 trip.
By placing three species on Pennsylvania’s endangered list, the commission could monitor survivors and protect winter cave habitats and summer forest shelters, Butchkoski said. In April, the commission will hold a hearing on the matter.
“These are the animals that we don’t want to put more stresses on,” he said. “These are the ones that we want to survive and work with in recovery.”
Developers and businesses would check a website to see which areas host bats, and if any restrictions, such as requirements to provide buffers around caves during mating season, are in place. The protections would be less stringent than a federal listing, which can have measures such as months-long ban on tree removal, Butchkoski said.
Still, state restrictions could be modified through discussions or set aside if a business agrees to offset any loss of habitat, he said.
The commission’s announcement galvanized opponents. The Pennsylvania Forest Products Association is rallying lawmakers and landowners, said Paul Lyskava, executive director.
“It’s a very important issue for us,” he said.
Protections for the federally endangered Indiana bat include a ban on tree removals near hibernation areas from April to mid-November. If such a measure were in place for other species, a majority of the state would be off limits most of the year, he said.
“There’s not really a lot of time for loggers to practice their professions, or sawmills or paper companies to be able to access the materials to stay in business,” he said.
The industry is still trying to recover from the recession, he said. Pennsylvania is the country’s top producer of hardwood lumber, and in 2012 had $1.2 billion in total hardwood exports, which includes lumber, logs and furniture, said Will Nichols, a spokesman for the Pennsylvania Department of Agriculture. Forestry companies employ 53,021 people, according to state data.
The Pennsylvania Chamber of Business and Industry, a Harrisburg-based group, sent the commission a letter questioning its power to enforce protections of bats.
Legislators may have some oversight over the game commission’s actions, said Representative Ron Miller, a Republican who is chairman of the environmental resources and energy committee.
“I don’t quite understand what you gain by putting them on the endangered species list if it’s a disease within the colony,” Miller said. “But I’m willing to hear what the scientists and everybody have to say. Certainly we want to know what the impact is.”