A proposal to trade part of the Shawnee National Forest to the Peabody Energy Company was protested this January because it will destroy the habitat of two species of endangered bats.
The Shawnee National Forest Plan would trade nearly 400 acres of river bottom and upland forest along the Saline River in Illinois to the Peabody Energy Company. They intend to strip-mine the land for coal, destroying the bats habitat. However, the Center for Biological Diversity and the Sierra Club have been protesting the land swap. They have filed a notice of intent to sue the Forest Service for failing to consult with the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service before setting up the exchange.
The Indiana bat, one of the species threatened, is already fighting for survival because of “White Nose Syndrome”, a fungal disease that has caused millions of deaths. This fungus started in Europe but has been spreading like wildfire in North America as well. White Nose Syndrome kills by waking the bats from torpor (similar to hibernation) in the winter when there is no food, causing them to starve to death. Indiana bats have already experienced a 70 percent decline since 2006 because of this fungus. Now this plan will destroy part of their habitat, threatening them unnecessarily.
The other species of bat being jeopardized is the Gray bat. White Nose syndrome has not yet been seen in this species but experts fear that the fungus may spread to them as well. Severe decline caused by pesticide use and habitant disruption by humans resulted in this species being put on the endangered species list in 1976. If White Nose Syndrome spreads to these bats and their home is destroyed through strip mining, the species may disappear entirely.
Mollie Matteson, a bat specialist at the Center for Biological Diversity stated: “Just two weeks ago, the federal government issued the staggering news that nearly 7 million bats have died over just the past few years from white-nose syndrome… Now the Forest Service proposes to intentionally put bats in harm’s way?”
Activists with the Sierra Club echo her concerns. These organizations feel that because these species are protected by the Endangered Species Act, the Forest Service has a legal obligation to shelter these bats, and that trading this land where endangered Indiana and Gray bats live is violating that obligation. The primary goal of the Forest Service should be to protect the bats, not destroy their remaining habitat.
Even without losing precious habitat, scientists fear that white-nose syndrome may cause the extinction of many species. This poses even greater ecological concerns since bats play a very important role as the primary insectivore consumers. This means that they keep insect populations in check. Even flycatcher birds cannot compare with bats in insect population control. Bats are great for controlling numbers of annoying biting insects like flies and mosquitos as well as insects that feed on crops here in the US. Last year, Science estimated that the economic value of bats to American agriculture. This value was defined as the cost of having to import the crops insects would destroy without bats to keep their numbers down. They stated the approximate worth of bats is as high as $53 billion per year, far higher than the worth of the land the Peabody Energy Company is trying to trade.
Despite the negative reputation bats have acquired over the years, they are very important to the environment. The Indiana Bat and the Gray Bat are already in trouble due to improper management and disease. The last thing they need right now is to have a portion of their home traded away and destroyed. The Center for Biological Diversity and the Sierra Club understand this, and are desperately fighting to protect these endangered species.