How bats became a symbol of Kentucky’s biodiversity crisis
Andrew Berry tramped through furling leaves searching for a particular tree in the Cedar Creek Wildlife Corridor. The trees were bare that frigid December morning. To the untrained eye the upland forest looked nearly identical in every direction, but Berry – who is the conservation director overseeing Bernheim Arboretum and Research Forest Bullitt County – found it.
The tree, admittedly, is not much to look at. The trunk is broken in half, the shaggy bark peeling back like wallpaper. But for northern long-eared bats, the tree is a daycare center.
“And what’ll happen is you’ll get 30, maybe even up to 100 northern long-eared bats,” Berry said. “They’ll use that [tree] to stash all their pups together communally. Then those bats will stay together in a cluster while they go out and forage through the night.”
Like the name implies, the northern-long eared bat is known for its oversized ears. It’s got a wingspan up to 10 inches, a body a little larger than a wine cork and a hankering for moths, beetles and spiders.
The species has been found in 37 states, but a fungus has been infecting and killing whole populations of the crepuscular critters for nearly two decades. Come Jan. 30, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service will officially list the northern long-eared bat as an endangered species.
Researchers caught two northern long-eared bats on Bernheim property back in 2017. They were able to track one of them to that desiccated tree, which stands less than a quarter mile from the site of a proposed Louisville Gas & Electric natural gas pipeline.
The nearly 12-mile-long gas pipeline would remove about 40 acres of forest including roost trees for the northern long-eared bat and the endangered Indiana bat. It would cross at least six major waterways and impact wetlands, sinkholes and habitat for more than a half-dozen threatened or endangered species, according to an LG&E stormwater pollution prevention plan.
The pipeline would disrupt only a fraction of the natural lands Bernheim preserves, but it exemplifies the pressures that are transforming the world’s remaining natural areas. The latest report from the Living Planet Index found wildlife has plummeted 69% on average among nearly 32,000 populations studied over the last 50 years.
Standing beside that rotten tree, Berry explained that in Kentucky it’s not just the northern long-eared bat in danger of extinction. It’s the little brown bat, the tri-colored bat, the Indiana bat, migratory bird populations, the monarch butterfly and many of the state’s less charismatic species like snails and clams.
Land use changes, urbanization, pollution, invasive species, resource exploitation and climate change are threatening vulnerable species in Kentucky and across the planet. These forces are playing out at rates unprecedented in human history. As a result, the U.N. estimates 1 million plant and animal species are at risk of extinction.
“With our bottomless appetite for unchecked and unequal economic growth, humanity has become a weapon of mass extinction. We are treating nature like a toilet, and ultimately we are committing suicide by proxy,” U.N. Secretary António Guterres said in December.
The rate of biodiversity loss is alarming, but Kentucky has implemented successful conservation and restoration projects. With funding, care and attention, preservation of the state’s wildlife and wild lands is possible.
Bats in the coal mine
When the temperatures drop, northern long-eared bats burrow into cracks and fissures deep inside caves and abandoned mines, called hibernacula. They rely on hibernation to survive harsh winter conditions when fewer bugs are available. Often, it’s only their noses and enlarged ears sticking out that give them away to researchers.
Ironically, it’s inside the hibernacula where they are often most at-risk. Insect-eating bats in the U.S. are plagued by a fungus known as white-nose syndrome that has decimated their populations since it was first discovered on bats in New York in 2007.
Researchers think it’s likely that cavers carried the fungus on their shoes to America from Europe, where bats have a resistance to it. White-nose leaves a powdery residue on bats' faces damaging tissue, scarring wings and disrupting the delicate balance bats need for hibernation, essentially starving them to death.
Berry stepped inside one of the many limestone caverns that pockmark the landscape at Bernheim. It took only a couple minutes for him to observe a solitary bat hanging from the ceiling. It was a tri-colored bat, another of the 13 species identified at Bernheim, and one that the U.S Fish and Wildlife Service has proposed be listed as endangered.
Both the tri-colored bat and the northern-long eared bat have seen population declines of more than 90% since white-nose syndrome arrived in the U.S. One day, it might be small caves like this where the remaining populations find refuge.
“It could be that you just have individuals that live on in places like this,” he said. “That’s usually what extinction looks like.”
But it’s not just white-nose syndrome affecting bats. Research says habitat loss, climate change and other factors are also propelling the bats toward extinction.
“As we start altering the landscape more and more, changing how those systems work, we’re going to lose species and we are losing species at a drastic rate,” said state wildlife extension specialist Matt Springer. “Within Kentucky, the same thing is playing out.”
Species at risk
At the highest risk for extinction, are the state’s 44 endangered species. Most of them are different kinds of clams. There’s about a half-dozen fish, some flowering plants and four species of mammals: all of which are bats.
Like most of the planet, the decline of Kentucky wildlife is connected to the way humans have transformed the landscape. Agriculture and urbanization have reshaped natural lands so much that Springer said several types of native ecosystems are now missing in Kentucky.
“[The] one that we’re lacking the most within Kentucky is those native grasses and grasslands,” Springer said. “They are incredibly diverse especially when it comes to your forbes species, your flowering plants.”
Even the state’s intact ecosystems are experiencing human-driven changes. The forests that cover about half the state are vibrant and continue to support a number of native species, but logging, mining, invasive species and climate change have also reshaped them.
Look no further than the American white oak trees used in bourbon barrels to impart the brown liquor’s color and flavor. Shifting land management practices and changes in forest ecology have made it difficult for white oak seedlings and saplings to take root and grow into mature trees.
Research has found extensive regions of the country where other species will grow up in place of the white oaks that die or are harvested. Several bourbon distillers are now participating in conservation and restoration plans to preserve white oak in American forests. But even species that we don’t directly rely on for food or agriculture can have large impacts on the economy.
U.S. Fish and Wildlife estimates bats contribute at least $3 billion every year to the U.S. agricultural economy though pollination and pest control. And that’s just bats. Across the planet, the U.N. estimates as much as $577 billion in crop production are at risk every year due to losses in pollinator species.
“We don't ever truly understand the role of a species within a system until we remove it completely, and then we see it and at that point it’s usually too late,” Springer said.
Conservation in Kentucky
Conservation has not kept pace with the rate that humans have transformed the landscape globally and in Kentucky.
Zeb Weese, the former chair of the Kentucky Heritage Land Conservation Fund, recently testified in Bullitt County Circuit Court that Kentucky conserves only one-third of 1% of the state’s land.
He estimated somewhere between 2% and 5% of Kentucky natural areas are conserved in total.
Weiss testified in an eminent domain hearing over Louisville Gas and Electric’s condemnation of conservation lands to build the pipeline through the region of Bernheim that includes habitat for northern long-eared bats.
Attorneys for the forest argued a state-backed conservation easement prevents LG&E from seizing the lands for the pipeline. Conservation easements are legal agreements that limit the future uses of land to protect wildlife and habitat. But the plain text of the state’s eminent domain law says to ignore conservation easements entirely.
“A conservation easement… shall not operate to impair or restrict any right or power of eminent domain created by statute, and all such rights and powers shall be exercisable as if the conservation easement did not exist,” it reads in part.
Kentucky’s largest utility has already acquired most of the land necessary to build the natural gas pipeline to improve capacity and reliability in northern Bullitt County. Bernheim is one of the last remaining hold outs.
Even if LG&E succeeds in getting all of the land, key permits remain on hold. Federal officials suspended a permit for the pipeline last year to look for critical habitat for imperiled bat species. Specifically, the contractor LG&E hired to conduct the environmental assessment never conducted a cave survey to look for bat hibernaculum. As of early January, the permit was still suspended, according to the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers.
Not far from the path of the proposed pipeline, Berry pointed to a limestone outcropping that’s home to a miniature snail with fewer than 30 known populations in the entire world.
The bluff vertigo snail is small enough to fit a few on a single fingernail. The species, with a black and brown coiled shell, is thought to be a glacial relic leftover from tens of thousands of years ago. It uses a raspy tongue called a radula to lick nutrients from the rock to survive.
“I’m actually the only person that’s found it in the last 25 years, living,” Berry said.
Environmental advocates point to a moral imperative that species have a fundamental right to exist, but often a species’ survival is predicated on its utility to humankind.
Studies have shown that humans, in general, care more about certain types of animals than others. It’s usually those that are more human-like and are cute or visually pleasing. Mollusks, insects and other non-mammals are sometimes forgotten when it comes to protection and conservation.
Kentucky has a state wildlife action plan that lists 301 vulnerable species including a cornucopia of flora and fauna: Songbirds, reptiles, crayfish, amphibians, mussels and plants that don’t typically receive the same kinds of funding as game species like deer, elk and grouse. But the state’s plan lacks dedicated funding.
Last month, conservationists pushed to include nearly $1.4 billion for the Recovering America’s Wildlife Act in the Congressional spending package. The funding would have provided Kentucky’s Department of Fish and Wildlife Resources $14.7 million a year to enact its wildlife action plan. Ultimately, Congress didn’t fund the act as part of the budget, but the measure could still be revived on its own or in other legislation.
Kentucky has led successful restoration efforts when there is dedicated funding. More than 100 years ago, unregulated hunting nearly drove the state’s deer population to extinction.
Instead, Fish and Wildlife Resources led a decades-long restoration effort using funding from the sale of hunting and fishing licenses. The latest statewide deer population was estimated at more than 900,000. The agency has also achieved similar accomplishments with elk management.
Springer, the state’s wildlife extension specialist, said people who are concerned about the impacts of biodiversity loss should let their elected leaders know.
“Let them know you care about wildlife and the future,” he said. “A little bit of funding can go a long way in terms of conservation success.”
Species preservation is only possible, however, with intact ecosystems. To that end, world leaders signed a historic agreement at the U.N. Biodiversity Conference in Montreal last month. It concluded with representatives from 188 countries agreeing to throw a life preserver to the planet’s flora and fauna by protecting 30% of land and oceans by 2030. The U.S. has also agreed to achieve this goal.
While only a fraction of natural lands are protected in Kentucky, places like Bernheim demonstrate their value. The arboretum and research forest protects more than 16,000 acres, much of which was previously logged and mined for iron production. Executive Director Mark Wourms said that after nearly 100 years of restoration, many of its lands are developing into mature forest.
“We want to be part of the solution for the long run, we think these species have a right to exist and we think future species have a right to enjoy them,” he said.
Conservationists say protecting and preserving species can start in people’s own backyards. Planting native flowering plants like milkweed can improve pollinator habitat for species like the endangered monarch butterfly.
“People are waking up to the fact that we can do business properly, do good business, and have a healthy environment and healthy communities,” Wourms said.
Correction: This story previously misspelled the name of Zeb Weese, the the former chair of the Kentucky Heritage Land Conservation Fund.