DALLAS – Texas Comptroller Glenn Hegar has asked the US Fish and Wildlife Service to refrain from identifying critical habitats for tricolored bats amid concerns how it could limit the state’s ability to generate energy.
Tri-colored bats are one of the smallest bat species in North America and are on the verge of extinction, according to federal officials, due to a disease known as white-nose syndrome, which is transmitted by a fungal pathogen that infects the skin of bats.
In a Nov. 14 letter to the agency, Hegar wrote that designating the bat species as critical habitat could affect the state’s ability to generate oil, gas, wind and other energy sources.
“Given the prevalence of tri-colored bats compared to the true prevalence of white-nose syndrome in Texas, designating significant portions of the state could have large economic implications if critical habitat designation reduces or impedes energy production,” he wrote.
The federal agency proposed in September that the bats be listed as endangered under the Endangered Species Act, and critical habitat identification is a legally protected tool designed to help further protect the species.
“There’s a whole range of threats facing the species, including white-nose syndrome,” said agency biologist Jennifer Smith-Castro. “That’s basically why we’re included on the list because we’re concerned about status because of these threats.”
These habitats usually have certain “biological and physical characteristics” that are essential for the survival of an endangered species, Smith-Castro said.
However, in its proposed rule, the agency noted that designating critical habitats for the tri-colored bat is “not prudent” because current habitations for the species are not subject to widespread destruction or alteration.
Tricolored bats typically live in caves and mines, but they can be seen in road culverts in Texas and other southern states.
Designating habitats for the species could also make the bats more vulnerable to human disturbances such as vandalism or research-related activities.
“In some cases, calling the Hibernacula and the Quarters is a problem,” Smith-Castro said. “And that may have led us to the imprudent finding.”
The agency said in a statement that identifying critical habitats could not only harm tricolored bat populations but also increase the spread of white-nose syndrome.
The disease is a skin irritant that can appear as a white fuzz on their snout and wings, Smith-Castro said. It affects tricolored bats during hibernation, when they enter a state of low energy or torpor and cannot fight it as easily.
Listing a species as endangered, including deciding whether to designate critical habitats, is a process that can take up to 12 months. The service is currently evaluating public comments before making a final decision.
In his statement, Hegar said Texas is an industry leader in the oil and gas industry, adding that the decision could have “serious implications” for the state and national economy.
In response, the federal agency said in a statement that it has a reputation for working with stakeholders to conserve bats while allowing economic activity to continue.
“We are working with forest managers, wind turbine operators and project advocates to identify strategies to avoid harming or killing listed bats through our various conservation tools, agencies and programs,” the agency wrote.
Tricolored bats are widespread in east and central parts of Texas, with some populations expanding west and north. They aren’t nearly as affected by white-nose syndrome as populations in other parts of the country, Smith-Castro said.
“We haven’t seen a huge die-off like we’ve seen in some other states, so we’re just monitoring regularly and trying to keep tabs on what’s happening,” she said.
According to Smith-Castro, bats play an essential role in the ecosystem, serving as natural pest control and pollinators. By eating insects and some mosquitoes, bats save farmers up to $3 billion a year in pesticides they would otherwise have to buy, according to federal officials.
“It’s significant — these ecosystem services are invaluable,” Smith-Castro said. “We’re lucky we have them out there doing these things for us.”