By Laura Zuckerman
(Reuters) - The Obama administration signaled on Thursday it may classify a bat decimated by a fungal disease as threatened, rather than endangered, which would allow activities such as logging of trees the bats use for forage and roosting.
In 2013 the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service recommended classifying the northern long-eared bat as endangered under the federal law after some populations in the northeastern United States declined by 99 percent due to a disease known as white-nose syndrome.
Named for the fungal residue on the muzzles of infected bats, it has spread to 25 states and five Canadian provinces since first being detected in New York in 2006. It affects seven types of bats that hibernate in caves and abandoned mines, and is thought to have killed more than 7 million of them.
The special rule proposed on Thursday by the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service would allow tree-cutting under certain conditions in areas used by northern long-eared bats, according to a proposal to be published in the Federal Register on Friday.
The rule would go into effect if the bats, which roam from Maine to South Carolina and can be found as far west as Montana, are classed as threatened, rather than endangered, in a final decision to be issued April 2.
But conservationists said listing the bat as threatened will doom it.
"This species is going extinct. It needs all the help it can get and that would be an endangered listing," said Mollie Matteson, scientist with the Center for Biological Diversity.
Fish and Wildlife Service spokeswoman Georgia Parham said the agency may seek to classify the bat as threatened, and then use a special rule to tailor its protections, rather than broadly ban human activities that are not a major threat to the species.
Bats with white-nose syndrome fly outside during winter months when they should be hibernating and when there are no insects for food. They eventually starve to death.
The disease is mostly transmitted from bat to bat, but fungal spores can be transported long distances on the clothing and equipment of people who visit caves.
Efforts by federal land managers to prevent the westward spread of the disease by closing caves and unoccupied mines in Rocky Mountain states have been opposed by caving enthusiasts.
(Reporting by Laura Zuckerman in Salmon, Idaho; Editing by Daniel Wallis and Diane Craft)