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Federal wildlife officials propose listing the tricolored bat as endangered

White-nose syndrome is characterized by a fuzzy growth on the faces and skin of bats. The fungus is not dangerous to humans.
Courtesy of Ryan von Linden/New York Department of Environmental Conservation
White-nose syndrome is characterized by a fuzzy growth on the faces and skin of bats. The fungus is not dangerous to humans.

The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service submitted a proposal last week to list a new animal as “endangered” under the Endangered Species Act. The tricolored bat is facing extinction, the agency says, primarily due to the rapid spread of white-nose syndrome.

“We've seen once-healthy colonies of bats that have disappeared,” said Jonathan Reichard, the agency's national white-nose syndrome assistant coordinator.

White-nose syndrome is a fungus that develops in the cave-dwellers during winter hibernation. It invades their skin and can be deadly. According to the Fish and Wildlife Service, it’s caused estimated population declines of more than 90 percent in affected colonies.

The tricolored bat is one of the smallest bats in the Mountain West and is known for its distinctive brown, yellow and dark gray hairs. The population ranges from the East Coast of North America to the Rocky Mountains.

Reichard said the species is unique as it often inhabits leafy trees throughout the summer. He said the mammal plays an important role in its ecosystem by controlling certain insects and plants.

“There are real economic and ecological benefits from healthy bat populations,” he said.

A recent paper out of Colorado State University suggests the loss of bats due to the highly contagious fungal disease costs U.S. agriculture up to $495 million a year.

White-nose syndrome was first discovered in New England and has now been confirmed in 38 states, including Wyoming, Montana, Colorado, New Mexico and Idaho. It’s threatening several types of bat, including the northern long-eared bat.

“We have not yet found a way that we can actually stop this spread,” Reichard said. “That's why we continue to see this sort of wave of white-nose syndrome moving westward.”

The spread of white-nose syndrome over time.
(Screenshot courtesy of the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service)
The spread of white-nose syndrome over time.

Reichard hopes designating the tricolored bat as endangered will give the Fish and Wildlife Service more resources to protect the bats. Federal listings trigger conservation and recovery planning on behalf of species and provides a non-regulatory roadmap that guides efforts. For instance, the agency may be able to clean the bats’ roosting areas in caves more often to try and limit the spread of fungus.

Additionally, the Fish and Wildlife Service said this proposal builds awareness and allows the public to participate in monitoring efforts. People can contact a local bat expert using this interactive map to see how to get involved with recovery or conservation efforts.

This story was produced by the Mountain West News Bureau, a collaboration between Wyoming Public Media, Nevada Public Radio, Boise State Public Radio in Idaho, KUNR in Nevada, the O'Connor Center for the Rocky Mountain West in Montana, KUNC in Colorado, KUNM in New Mexico, with support from affiliate stations across the region. Funding for the Mountain West News Bureau is provided in part by the Corporation for Public Broadcasting.

Will Walkey is currently a reporter for Wyoming Public Radio. Through 2023, Will was WPR's regional reporter with the Mountain West News Bureau. He first arrived in Wyoming in 2020, where he covered Teton County for KHOL 89.1 FM in Jackson. His work has aired on NPR and numerous member stations throughout the Rockies, and his story on elk feedgrounds in Western Wyoming won a regional Murrow award in 2021.
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