Emergency Order Saves Bats; Industry Faces $1M Penalties

Industry must pay hundreds of thousands of dollars in costs with the emergency listing of three bat species as endangered. Cabinet ordered that wind turbine operators, mines, tourism firms, forestry and pest control companies operating on Crown land take steps to protect bat habitat under threat of $1 million fines.

“Are bats worth the inevitable lawsuits and cost of remedial work?” said Dr. Craig Willis, University of Winnipeg biologist and operator of a bat research lab. “It’s difficult to quantify the economic value of wild species. How do you put a dollar figure on that?”

The Environment Canada order comes two years after a federal panel, the Committee on the Status of Endangered Wildlife in Canada, issued an emergency assessment that bats are dying in record numbers. The “endangered” listing applies to the Little Brown Bat, Northern Bat and Tri-Coloured Bat, all threatened by a spreading fungus blamed for fatal “white-nose syndrome”.

“This fungus is a hibernating bat specialist,” said Prof. Willis, who likened bat mortality to the decimation of Plains bison in the 19th century: “I can’t recall any faster decline in any animal population that we’ve ever observed.”

The order under the Species At Risk Act protects bat habitat on 145,953 square kilometres of Crown land. “If critical habitat is identified on federal lands, it must be legally protected,” Environment Canada said in a regulatory notice. Violators face fines of up to $1 million for corporations and $250,000 for individuals. Commercial operations impacted by the order include:

  • •Forestry, where “trees are sometimes used by the three species of bats as roosts”;
  • •Mining, where bats hibernate in inactive mine shafts; 112 inactive mines have reopened on Crown lands in the past 14 years, by official estimate;
  • •Transportation, where bridge repairs may interfere with “active bat maternity colonies”;
  • •Wind farms, which must take steps to mitigate bat kills.

“Industry can be a huge part of the solution,” said Prof. Willis. “The wind industry in many parts of the country has led the way in trying to mitigate the loss of bats. Companies can spend a lot of money on legal costs, or do the easier mitigation actions required and come out ahead.”

Shut Turbines At Night

Cabinet did not quantify the cost of protection measures. The Canadian Wind Energy Association said it could not estimate the impact: “It is too premature to speculate,” said Tom Levy, director of technical and utility affairs. “We’re involved in these discussions.”

Environment Canada said operators could raise minimum wind speeds at which turbines operate, or change the angle of blades to reduce bat kills: “Some turbine operators may have to shut down at night and restart them in the morning to avoid bat fatalities for several weeks when the risk to bats is greatest,” the department said.

“The industry has done a lot of work to understand bat ecology,” Levy said. “We’re at the table because of white-nose syndrome; I’d like to see other industries at the table as well.”

Pest control companies and demolition firms operating on federal land are also subject to the order. Firms can apply for ministerial permits to interfere with bat habitat, though the department cautioned that permits “would be granted only where all reasonable alternatives were considered”.

Regulators suggested mining companies reopening abandoned shafts should wait till after bats end their hibernation, then erect mesh netting to prevent the animals’ return. Cave operators in national parks will be required to disinfect boots and equipment.

“There has been a significant decline in these species over a short period of time,” said Darlene Dove, an officer with the Ontario Ministry of Natural Resources’ Species At Risk branch. Ontario listed the Little Brown Bat as endangered in 2013.

Dove said the listings are needed to prevent “demise of bats in the province”, but could not say if the provincial order has been effective. “It’s too early to tell,” she said. “There hasn’t been enough data collected; it does take time to see a trend.”

“It’s Calamitous”

Environment Canada estimated the Little Brown Bat, once the most common bat in the country, has seen its population decline 94 percent in just four years. Fatal fungus has been identified in Prince Edward Island, Nova Scotia, New Brunswick, Québec and Ontario, and is spreading at the rate of 200 kilometres annually.

“It’s calamitous – that’s not an overstatement,” said the University of Winnipeg’s Dr. Willis. “This is important. It’s our fault. It’s pretty clear people brought this fungus into North America, and we ought to try and clean it up.”

The fungus is native to Europe and was first detected in the U.S. in 2006, and Canada in 2010 where it thrives in cold, damp environments. Federal regulators said even with habitat protection, it will take 70 to 100 years for bat populations to recover.

“These animals are part of the mystique of nature,” Willis said. “They eat vast amounts of insects.” A single Little Brown Bat weighing 6 grams can consume 1,200 mosquitos in an hour, and up to a kilogram of bugs including crop-killing insects over the course of a summer.

By Tom Korski

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