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Minnesota counties change logging rules to protect endangered bats

Aitkin and Carlton county foresters have developed a habitat plan for endangered bats that could become a model for the future of logging in Minnesota and the Upper Midwest.

In the past five years, a foreign fungus causing a deadly disease called white-nose syndrome has killed more than 95% of long-eared bats in northern Minnesota, which have been placed on the endangered species list. in November.

Two other species of Minnesota hibernating bats — tricolor and little brown — are also on the brink of extinction and under consideration for the endangered species list. Bat populations have declined in 38 states and eight Canadian provinces where the fungus has spread since arriving in New York in the mid-2000s.

The endangered species list will give northern bats new federal protections starting in February – the most important being the requirement for loggers to obtain permits if their cutting could result in death or injury to bats. -mouse.

Aitkin and Carlton counties, which manage a total of about 300,000 acres of forest just west of Duluth, are the first in the state to get the permits. They plan to create permanent conservation areas around any trees known to be roosting sites for pregnant bats, which hide in tree cavities in the spring to give birth. It will allow them to harvest the usual amount each year, ranging from 1% to just under 3% of their public forest.

Bats can use just about any tree species to give birth to, including trees as young as five years old. They stay there until July while the pup learns to fly, with the mother carrying her young on her back at night as she flies off to devour mosquitoes and other insects.

As part of their plan, counties will periodically inspect forests for roosting trees. No logging will be permitted within 150 feet of a tree used by a pregnant bat, until that tree is no longer “suitable” for the habitat and dies a natural death.

“We will protect this site for as long as the roosting tree is there – from 5 years old until it drops to 150 years old,” Carlton County Lands Commissioner Greg Bernu said.

The plan, which also prohibits logging within a quarter mile of any hibernation site, requires the vast majority of logging to take place in late fall and winter, when the bats leave the forest to hibernate underground in caves and mines. It further limits logging during the critical calving months of June and July to less than 10% of that year’s total harvest.

Most of Minnesota’s logging already takes place in the winter, because that’s when the ground is strong enough to allow heavy equipment to move easily through the forests. Even without the restrictions, only 5% of the timber harvest in the two counties typically occurs in June and July.

A deadly mushroom

As the fungus spread in 2014, county leaders knew the hibernating bats were likely to end up on the endangered species list. They began conducting acoustic surveys that year, finding northern bats in almost every corner of the woods they examined.

Populations of northern long-eared bats, tricolors, and little brown bats crashed in 2017, and sightings have become rare. In 2020, surveys by Aitkin and Carlton found no northern bats at all, Bernu said.

Permits allow counties to continue logging for the next 25 years. This is essential, because the money raised from the sale of the exploitation rights covers practically all the costs of maintaining the land. Without that revenue, counties would likely sell off the forests they manage, Bernu said. Based on population estimates, the US Fish and Wildlife Service estimates that logging will accidentally kill a total of nine bats during this 25-year period.

Although logging has not caused the population to collapse, any hope for the bats’ future depends on their ability to give birth inside these trees. They prefer older ones that get lots of sun to keep them warm, and their favorites in Minnesota are aspen and elm, according to the Department of Natural Resources.

It took only a few years for the fungus to kill nearly all of the upstate long-eared bats. It grows when bats slow down their immune systems to save energy during the winter, and turns into a fuzzy white foam-like substance that spreads to the tips of their wings and onto their faces. Hibernating bats wake up and try to lick themselves, like a dog or a cat. But in doing so, they burn the energy and fat they need to survive the winter and starve.

Fungal growth also blocks the release of carbon dioxide, which occurs through the bat’s wings during hibernation. This forces the bats to wake up to exhale, expending valuable energy. Sometimes bats die in the cave; other times they fly off in a desperate search for insects to eat in the dead of winter.

The fungus has killed millions of northern bats, wiping out some populations and destroying around 97% of many of their largest hibernation sites, such as the underground Sudan Mine near Ely, Minnesota.

States have largely given up on preventing the fungus from entering caves where bats hibernate. They are now focused on making sure the few survivors can reproduce. The hope is that survivors have physical or genetic traits that they can pass on to their young that will make them better able to fight off white nose syndrome.

The Minnesota DNR is working with Wisconsin and Michigan to develop a conservation plan that would cover all of their state-managed forests. The plan, which is under review by the Fish and Wildlife Service, would be similar to the one approved for Aitkin and Carlton counties, said Lacy Levine, supervisor of the conservation and resource management unit. rare from MNR.

Like the counties plan, the state joint plan would ban logging within 150 feet of roosting trees and a quarter mile of hibernation sites. It would also impose new limits on logging, construction of roads and ATV trails, and prescribed burns in June and July. Similar restrictions were incorporated into approved plans for Missouri and Pennsylvania.

Levine expects the Fish and Wildlife Service to make a decision on the state’s joint venture by the end of the month.

“A common theme is this desire to protect maternity trees,” Levine said. “It’s so important because [bats] tend to come back to the same booth every summer.”

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