ST. PAUL — Minnesota conservation officials would extend protections to some private forestland owners under a proposed bat habitat conservation plan but only a small handful may even be eligible for them.
A component of the plan intended for private landholders would only be open to those who own 10,000 acres of forest or more, or who own property where bats are known to hibernate or roost. Enrollment in the program essentially permits one to continue forest management practices, including timber harvests, in areas where they could result in the incidental death of or harm to bats belonging to a declining species
The northern long-eared bat, the little brown bat and tri-colored bat — all of which are highlighted for additional protections under the tri-state plan — occur at low population densities, according to the Minnesota Department of Natural Resources, making it unlikely for them to be harmed in the course of private forestland management activities to begin with.
In an email, DNR endangered species consultant Bridget Henning-Randa said only 35 entities are estimated to be eligible. Department officials have recently met with tribal and county government representatives, large industrial forest landowners and other such entities to discuss the program, she said.
The DNR’s forestry division, Henning-Randa said, “works with a large network of private forestland owners and partner organizations to provide services to private landowners and partner with them to conserve and manage forests, and will consider how best to serve the public through this network, and other means.”
The landowner program is one of the latest aspects of the wide-ranging Lake States Forest Management Bat Habitat Conservation Plan to come up for public comment. Geared mostly toward offsetting the effect of white-nose syndrome, a fungal disease that has ravaged bat populations across North America, the plan is being developed by state conservation departments not only in Minnesota but in Wisconsin and Michigan for use there as well.
The disease is named for the white fungus that causes, which forms over the noses of infected bats. It is believed to kill by irritating the skin, causing bats infected with it to wake up from hibernation.
Once awake, an infected bat will often and inadvertently bore through the energy it stored up on for the winter, essentially starving itself to death.
The disease has killed millions of bats across the U.S. in the time since it was first observed in the mid-2000s. It was first observed in Minnesota in 2011 and is now believed to have spread to 15 counties here, according to the Minnesota DNR, threatening agricultural and human activities that rely on bats as a natural form of insect control.
Public-private conservation partnerships aren't uncommon in forestry. Several federally sponsored ones even offer subsidies for landowners who construct artificial roosts for endangered species, including bats and birds.
"It helps them keep the property in their family in the face of increasing property taxes, and avoid the pressure of having to sell their property," Minnesota Forestry Association member Bruce ZumBahlen said.
Of the bats targeted in the tri-state plan, though, only the northern long-eared bat is federally recognized as endangered. The other two considered to be "species of special concern," a designation given to species that require special monitoring or are recovering from endangerment.
No subsidies, however, appear to be in the works for the bat conservation plan's landowner program. It isn't clear if there will be any penalties for qualifying landowners who do accidentally harm bats but chose not to enroll.
"It is the jurisdiction of the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service to determine repercussions for the 'taking' of bats listed under the Endangered Species Act," Henning-Randa said. "The goal of this project is to provide coverage for take from normal forest management to the state DNR, and a cost-effective option to comply with ESA for those other forest landowners who may need it."
Also yet to be determined are the application fees for landowners who wish to enroll.
"We don't anticipate it being very high," DNR forest policy analyst Lacy Levine told the Minnesota Forest Resource Council during an online meeting last month.
Permits sought for the plan as a whole are expected to be effective for 50 years, and w
Minnesota's share of administrative costs for the whole plan are estimated to total $6.9 million over the course of the 50-year-term for which it will be effective. The landowner program is among the final components of the plan up for public comment, with approval from federal regulators still required ahead of its publishing on the federal register.