March 17, 2015

Public Comments Processing
Attn: FWS-R5-ES-2011-0024
Division of Policy and Directives Management
U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service
4401 N. Fairfax Drive, MS 2042-PDM
Arlington, VA 22203


RE:     Docket ID No. FWS-R5-ES-2011-0024—
(Endangered and Threatened Wildlife and Plants; Listing the Northern Long-Eared Bat with a Rule under Section 4(d) of the (Endangered Species) Act)


Dear Sir or Madam:


Pennsylvania Farm Bureau (PFB) is pleased to offer its comments on the rule proposed by the United States Fish and Wildlife Service (FWS), “Endangered and Threatened Wildlife and Plants; Listing the Northern Long-Eared Bat with a Rule Under Section 4(d) of the Act,” (Docket ID No. FWS-R5-ES-2011-0024).


PFB is a general farm organization, made up of more than 59,780 members, providing legislative support, information, and services to Pennsylvania's farmers and rural families since 1950. Our organization includes 54 local organizations (county Farm Bureaus) that actively operate in 64 of Pennsylvania’s 67 counties. PFB is the state affiliate of the American Farm Bureau Federation (AFBF), an organization representing more than six million, two hundred thousand member families throughout the United States. In addition to the comments we are offering today, we want to affirm our support of the comments to be filed on this proposed rule by AFBF, and would request that such comments be treated as part of the comments contained herein.


PFB agrees that federal agencies and citizens must take responsible action when wildlife species are in danger of extinction to facilitate recovery of species populations. Farmers enjoy the benefits of having wildlife on their properties, and they already take measures on their own to provide for wildlife and their habitat on farmland. But, at the same time, PFB believes that the Endangered Species Act (ESA) must be modernized, so that endangered species can be protected without imposing excessive burdens and restrictions on landowners’ use of land that provide marginal enhancement of species recovery. Unfortunately, the ESA is often ineffective at protecting endangered species, unnecessarily harming property owners in the process. And, in the case of the northern long-eared (NLE) bat, listing this species has the potential to negatively affect farmers within the bat’s range. With the preceding as background, PFB offers the following comments on the potential impacts of listing the NLE bat.


1.    The range and commonness of the NLE bat make the potential scope of the proposed listing, as well as its impact on agriculture, unprecedented—but the primary basis for the proposed listing is not human-caused.


The decision to list the northern long-eared bat should not be taken lightly. With a range of 38 states and the District of Columbia, and the fact that this species of bat is 15-20 times more common than other non-listed bats in some areas, the potential scope of this listing and the impact on agriculture could be unprecedented. Even more concerning is the basis for the proposed listing is not related to human activity, but because of the FWS’s estimation of the anticipated impact of the white-nose syndrome. Page 61058 of the October 2, 2013 Federal Register Notice  (“Notice”) states:


“… we have found no other threat that is as severe and immediate to the northern long-eared bat’s persistence as the disease, white-nose syndrome (WNS) … if WNS had not emerged or was not affecting the northern long-eared bat populations to the level that it has, we presume the species would not be experiencing the dramatic declines it has since WNS emerged.”


In addition, the Notice’s  summary of “other natural or manmade factors affecting [the northern long-eared bat’s] continued existence” indicates that though the factors identified (which included wind energy and natural gas development, contaminants, etc) do occur, there is:


“… no evidence that these activities alone have significant effects on either species [eastern and northern long-eared bat], because their effects are often localized and not widespread throughout the species’ ranges.”


Furthermore, concerns have been voiced by commenters in response to the FWS’s request for comments about the validity of survey data conducted for the proposed listing was based on inaccurate and insufficient NLE bat data collected during winter surveys. In fact, in the Notice , the FWS discusses the winter habitat and specifically states that, “Northern long-eared bats are typically found roosting in small crevices or cracks in cave or mine walls or ceilings, often with only the nose and ears visible, thus are easily overlooked during surveys.”


The summer roosting locations are more likely to impact agriculture. Per the Notice, in the summer, the NLE bats, “typically roost … underneath bark or in cavities or crevices of both live
trees and snags,” and “they have also been observed roosting in colonies in human made structures, such as buildings, barns, a park pavilion, sheds, cabins, under eaves of buildings, behind window shutters and in bat houses.”  Many of these roosting sites are likely to be found on farms across Pennsylvania and within the stated range of these bats.


Once listed, the ESA makes it unlawful for any person – including private and public entities – to “take” a NLE bat. The ESA defines “take” to mean “harass, harm, pursue, hunt, shoot, wound, kill, trap, capture, or collect, or attempt to engage in any such conduct.” Further, the Act prohibits potential “harm” to include significant habitat modification or degradation which “actually kills or injures fish or wildlife by significantly impairing essential behavioral patterns, including, breeding, spawning, rearing, migrating, feeding or sheltering.” Violation of ESA take prohibitions carries civil penalties of up to $25,000 per violation, and criminal penalties of up to $50,000 and one year imprisonment per violation.  


These take prohibitions, along with the designation of critical habitat, have the potential to adversely impact a broad range of industries/activities, including natural gas and wind energy development; application of pesticides, insecticides and herbicides; highway construction; and timber harvesting. All of these activities affect agriculture. For example, the proposed listing could mean that a livestock farmer with vast shale gas resources under her land may not be able to sell subsurface rights that could provide a much-needed infusion of capital, or a dairy farmer many not be able to easily get a milk truck onto the farm because construction of a nearby bridge has stalled.


2.    The proposed listing attempts to link the use of certain pesticides used in agriculture to species decline, even though the FWS itself notes that the best available data shows that exposure to such chemicals is not a risk, on its own, to the NLE bat population.


In asserting the possible cumulative effects to the NLE from other natural or manmade factors – specifically the application of pesticides – FWS’s proposed listing seeks to tie the chemical application of agricultural use of organiochlorine pesticides , organophosphate, carbamate and neonicotinoid insecticides, polychlorinated biphenols and polybrominated diphenyl ethers, and pyrethroid insecticides to species decline. However, at the end of the section of the Federal Register notice  discussing the effects of these and other contaminants, the FWS concludes:


“… the best available data indicate that contaminant exposure can pose an adverse effect to individual northern long-eared and eastern small-footed bats, although it is not an immediate and significant risk in itself at a population level.  



Pesticide applications are covered by state laws and the Federal Insecticide, Fungicide and Rodenticide Act, and farmers have well-established practices concerning the application of pesticides. These practices spanned decades in which the NLE bat populations were not in decline. It was only after WNS was introduced to the NLE bat that documented impacts to species health and population decline were found. In light of this, it is inappropriate for the FWS to link the application of pesticides by farmers to species decline without documented scientific analysis.


Farmers are very concerned about this attempt to link pesticides and decline of the NLE bat, as it likely would limit access to an important on-farm tool. Many Pennsylvania farmers are certified pesticide applicators, do not use more pesticides, herbicides and insecticides than necessary, and choose treatments/preventive measures carefully. Farmers often choose which herbicides to use based on weed pressure and field history, and also use cover crops, which help to reduce weed pressure and the amount of herbicides that have to be applied.


3.    The prevalence of forest land on or near many agricultural properties makes the proposed listing a potentially serious hardship for many farmers, especially in Pennsylvania.


With 59 percent or nearly 17 million acres of Pennsylvania covered by forest, many agricultural operations include forested acres. Given the statement on page 61075 of the Notice that, “Other sources of mortality to the species include … habitat modification, destruction and disturbance,” and the summer habitats of the NLE bat discussed earlier, listing the NLE bat as an endangered species is likely to pose very serious challenges to farmers who have forested land on their farms.


Given the prevalence of forested land on or near many Pennsylvania farm properties, it is an open question as to what happens if the NLE bat is found to be roosting in an area of a farmer’s property, and how that will impact the farmer’s ability to clear trees for firewood or planting, implement forest management plans and undertake managed harvesting and other recommended activities. Restricting these activities has the potential to adversely affect on-farm production activities, forest habitat management, and farm revenue. Pennsylvania also has one of the nation’s largest concentrations of hardwood growing stock and is a leading producer of hardwood lumber. This industry sustains jobs and contributes to both the state and national economies. In addition, Pennsylvania is a national leader in the implementation and promotion of sustainable forestry practices.


4.    Farmers may face severe restrictions on the use of their own property (and significant economic consequences) if the NLE bat is listed—despite the difficulty of determining whether or not the NLE bat is actually on their farm.


Many farmers—in Pennsylvania or elsewhere—know that they have bats on my farm, but they don’t know the species. This uncertainty leads to questions about what would happen to a farmer who is found to have the northern long-eared bat on their property, such as whether he would face restrictions on how he could use his barn; whether he would be able to repair or tear down an existing structure if were found to house NLE bats; or even if he would have to take land out of production or change the way he farms the land because it was too close to a roosting site.


To illustrate how even a small restriction on how a farmer can use his property can have a large impact on that farm’s continued viability, consider the following example. A farmer is found to be hosting the NLE bat as a result of the proposed listing and as a result, has to take four acres of a corn field out of production, which could amount to as many as 800 bushels of corn lost. At $4.30 a bushel, that translates to a loss of $3,440. In addition, the finding of the NLE also rendered the farmer unable to spray the correct pesticide and, as a result, the farmer lost 40 percent of his four-acre crop—a further loss of $1,376. On a farm, every bit of land counts, and losing even just a small parcel of land can have serious consequences for the success of a farm.


5.    When dealing with the NLE bat, FWS should look to states like Pennsylvania for solutions that are practical, workable, and positive for both the agricultural industry and the environment.


Farmers care about the environment and conservation. They want to preserve their land and the environment, so that they can pass that land onto the next generation without ruining it for them and the generations that follow. To ensure that, they seek practical solutions that work for agriculture—and the environment.


Farmers also know from hard-won experience that excessive regulations generally do not benefit either the person regulated or that which is intended to be protected—but that practical, workable solutions can—and do—solve problems. Practical solutions can protect wildlife and the environment and ensure that agriculture can continue to operate effectively and efficiently. A failure to find such solutions jeopardizes the ability of agriculture to produce safe, affordable and abundant food and fiber for consumers in Pennsylvania, the United States and the world.


As the FWS and Congress try to make the right decisions regarding the NLE bat, they should look at the Pennsylvania Game Commission (PGC) as a case study. Several years ago, the PGC considered placing the northern long-eared bat and two other species impacted by white-nose syndrome on the state’s endangered species list. Following a public comment period, the PGC decided not to list the three bat species. In a press release on the decision, Carl Roe, the PGC’s Executive Director stated:


“… it is clear that more discussion, research and coordination need to be done on WNS and the other outside factors that are impacting our bat populations, as well as how we can craft solutions that protect bats without threatening the industries that employ thousands of Pennsylvanians.”


It seems that the same issue that the PGC confronted is now before the FWS. In our view, Pennsylvania made a reasonable decision based on the available evidence, and that is the path that the federal government should follow now. Failing to do so will have ripple effects on the environment and agriculture that will eventually reach consumers.


Conclusion


Farmers believe that using both common sense and science is a logical way to approach not just farming, but regulations—and the proposal to list the NLE bat is flawed from both perspectives. If the FWS recognizes that human activities have not had an appreciable effect on the species to date, then the focus on human-induced impacts to try to slow population decline is misguided and counter-productive. The proposed listing would harm farmers, landowners, builders and service providers—to just name a few—without guaranteeing that this action will stop NLE bat declines. It seems that a better approach would be to focus on the root cause of the problem—white nose syndrome.


Farm Bureau recommends that the FWS not list the northern long-eared bat as an endangered species, and to instead support efforts to identify and develop commonsense legislative reforms to the Endangered Species Act that make it more workable for private landowners—and thus more beneficial for the species that it is supposed to help. Thank you for the opportunity to comment on the proposed listing.


Sincerely,
 
Grant R. Gulibon
Director, Regulatory Affairs