The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service announced Wednesday that it is protecting the northern long-eared bat as a threatened species under the Endangered Species Act, a move that could add more delays to the proposed Glades Reservoir project.
The bat, whose habitat extends into Hall County, is in danger of becoming extinct because of white-nose syndrome, a fungal disease that has killed many bat populations.
“Bats are a critical component of our nation’s ecology and economy, maintaining a fragile insect predator-prey balance; we lose them at our peril,” USFWS Director Dan Ashe said in a statement. “Without bats, insect populations can rise dramatically, with the potential for devastating losses for our crop farmers and foresters. The alternative to bats is greater pesticide use, which brings with it another set of ecological concerns.”
Environmental conservation organizations lauded the move to protect the bat, but businesses and trade groups objected to the decision.
“From day one, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service acknowledged that the greatest threat to the northern long-eared bat is a fungal disease called the white-nose syndrome, not habitat loss due to human activity,” Dan Naatz, senior vice president of government relations and political affairs at the Independent Petroleum Association of America, said in statement. “This is the agency’s most restrictive designation to date, potentially affecting a myriad of U.S. industries, including oil and gas producers, wind energy developers, agriculture and other construction projects planned in regions where the bat habitat exists.”
Endangered species protections are designed to protect the bats when they are most vulnerable, according to the USFWS, including during hibernation and the pup-rearing season from June through July.
A draft environmental impact statement for Glades Reservoir will have to account for these protections.
The DEIS was scheduled for release in March, but was pushed back when the USFWS proposed protections after significant and severe population declines and loss of traditional habitats.
And a final DEIS had been scheduled for release in the fall, with a permitting decision from the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers coming in December.
The currently adjusted timeline now schedules the DEIS for release in July or August, with a 45-day public comment period to follow.
A final DEIS will come in March 2016, with a decision from the corps proposed for that May or June.
Previous delays in releasing the DEIS have cost Hall County hundreds of thousands of dollars in consulting fees, with special purpose local option sales tax monies, or SPLOST VI, helping to cover these costs.
"The long-eared bat is costing construction projects in North Georgia hundreds of thousands of extra dollars in compliance costs," said U.S. Rep. Doug Collins, R-Gainesville, in a statement. "In 2014, 182 of them in 30 counties required special testing, though nobody in our state has seen the bat in decades.
"The Glades Reservoir Project is held up. And today’s announcement by the US Fish and Wildlife Service will add to the economic burden on families and businesses, who aren’t responsible for the bat’s decline, according the federal government’s own research.
"We're all concerned about the problem, but a naturally occurring disease is responsible, not human activity," Collins added.
The county has spent more than $15 million to date on Glades, including costs for acquiring land.
Supporters of the proposed 850-acre Glades Reservoir in the Upper Chattahoochee River Basin say it will add about 40 million gallons per day to the water supply of Northeast Georgia at an estimated $130 million cost to Hall County.
Opponents counter that it is an “amenity lake” with steep economic and environmental costs and little tangible benefit.
The USFWS said interim rules to protect the bat will take effect May 4 and final rules will be issued by the end of the year.
Interim exemptions that reduce regulatory burdens for landowners, land managers, government agencies and others in the range of the northern long-eared bat include forest management practices, maintenance and limited expansion of transportation and utility rights-of-way, removal of trees and brush to maintain prairie habitat, and limited tree-removal projects, according to the USFWS.
Exemptions also apply to the removal of hazardous trees, removal of bats from human dwellings and research.
The USFWS is working with state and federal agencies, conservation organizations and scientific institutions to mitigate white-nose syndrome through disease monitoring and management, conservation and outreach.