Into the Wild: The Maine animals disappearing faster than any other

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In a world where wildlife populations are disappearing quickly, some Maine animals have been hit the hardest.

The statistics stand out in a field full of staggering numbers: Populations of these species have declined by up to 97 percent in just over a decade – just 3 percent left.

Nick LundIt would be as if everyone in Maine disappeared except for the people in Lewiston.

Can you imagine if Maine’s lobster population dropped 97 percent in a decade? If the number of white-tailed deer cratered? It would dominate the headlines.

The decline of these creatures hasn’t raised as much alarm among the general public because they weren’t especially visible even when they were numerous.

They’re bats, and all eight of Maine’s species are in serious trouble.

Getting the worst of it are Maine’s five species of hibernating bats: big brown bat (Eptesicus fuscus), little brown bat (Myotis lucifugus), northern long-eared bat (Myotis septentrionalis), eastern small-footed bat (Myotis leibii), and tri-colored bat (Pipistrellus subflavus).

Packed tightly in caves, rock crevices, hollow trees, and manmade structures, hibernating bats are at increased risk of transmitting a deadly plague – white-nose syndrome – to one another.

The illness is caused by a fungus that colonizes the bats, often appearing as a fuzzy white growth on their muzzle. The symptoms are most evident during winter hibernation when bats slow their metabolism while waiting for spring. The fungus causes bats to wake from their torpor, costing them energy they can’t afford to lose.

Northern long-eared bat
An endangered northern long-eared bat. (Courtesy USGS)

Sometimes affected bats leave their caves in midwinter in a mad search for insects to help rebuild fat stores – a suicide mission. When the fungus reached Acadia National Park in the early 2010s, rangers suddenly began fielding hundreds of reports of bats flying in the winter, a phenomenon never before reported in the park.

The fungus that caused white-nose syndrome was only discovered in 2006, in a cave in upstate New York. The spread since then has been almost unbelievable, to at least 33 states and seven Canadian provinces. Just six years after its discovery, between 5 and 7 million bats are believed to have been killed.

Among the hardest-hit species is the northern long-eared bat, a charismatic bat found in forests across the northeast U.S. and central Canada. A cave-hibernator, northern long-eared bat populations have been absolutely destroyed by white-nose syndrome, dropping by as much as 99 percent.

Perhaps tens of millions of bats have been lost in the decade and a half since the discovery of white-nose syndrome, although scientists are having a difficult time knowing exactly how many. Bats are tough to study, especially when they’re tucked away for the winter, and getting precise counts (while trying not to introduce the fungus to new colonies) is a hurdle. So is finding solutions to the problem; there is no cure yet known for the fungus, which continues to spread.

Bats must be protected in order to give us time to understand white-nose syndrome and find solutions. The Endangered Species Act remains one of our best tools to keep species safe while recovery plans are developed, and no American animals fit the definition of “endangered” better than northern long-eared and other bats.

The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service is debating whether to upgrade protections for the northern long-eared bat by adding it to the Endangered rather than Threatened list. It should.

Rep. Chellie Pingree, D-Maine, can help, too. As chair of the Interior and Environment Subcommittee of the House Appropriations Committee, Pingree can help ensure that the Endangered Species Act is adequately funded to protect bats, along with piping plovers, Atlantic salmon, leatherback sea turtles, and other endangered species in Maine. The Biden Administration proposed an increase for the Endangered Species Act of nearly $79 million over existing funding levels in its budget, a figure I hope Pingree can secure.

Maine’s bats can’t wait much longer.

Nick Lund of Cumberland is outreach and network manager at Maine Audubon. He has written about nature for the National Audubon Society, Down East, National Parks Magazine, The Washington Post, and others. He can be found online at TheBirdist.com and on Twitter @TheBirdist.