WASHINGTON — The Arkansas Forestry Association says it can live with a recent U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service decision to list the northern long-eared bat as a threatened species while allowing most forest management practices to continue unabated.

WASHINGTON — The Arkansas Forestry Association says it can live with a recent U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service decision to list the northern long-eared bat as a threatened species while allowing most forest management practices to continue unabated.


"From our perspective a threatened listing is obviously more palatable than an endangered listing," said Max Braswell, executive vice president of the Arkansas Forestry Association. "We don’t think (the listing) will have a significant impact on us, but we will continue to be vigilant."


The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service had considered adding the bat to the endangered species list but settled instead on the "threatened" listing — offering the bats some protection from human harm — but also included a rule allowing the timber industry to continue most of its forest-management practices and timber harvesting.


The fungus that causes the deadly white nose syndrome has been detected in 28 of the 37 states inhabited by the northern long-eared bat, including Arkansas.


"We are listing this species because a disease — white-nose syndrome — is spreading and decimating its populations," said the Service’s Midwest Regional Director Tom Melius. "We designed the 4(d) rule to provide appropriate protection within the area where the disease occurs for the remaining individuals during their most sensitive life stages, but to otherwise eliminate unnecessary regulation."


Under the proposed 4(d) rule, the timber industry would be free to harvest trees, clear undergrowth and continue typical forest management activities but would not be able to cut trees within a quarter-mile of the caves where the bats are hibernating. They would also be blocked from cutting trees within a quarter-mile of where a mother bat is roosting her young, which typically occurs in June and July.


The federal agency is seeking comment on the 4(d) rule over the next three months before making it final.


The listing has been sharply criticized by the oil and gas industry and some politicians who fear an expansion of federal regulations will increase business costs while doing a minimum of good for the bat population. Instead, they say, the government should focus on the fungus responsible for the deaths of millions of the bats.


"Rather than listing the bat and limiting development, the Fish and Wildlife Service should work toward finding a solution to this deadly disease, while ensuring energy development, environmental stewardship, species conservation, and economic growth can thrive together across the nation," said Dan Naatz, a lobbyist for the Independent Petroleum Association of America.


Naatz said the "threatened" designation could affect development and private property rights in 37 states, and impact a myriad of industries, including oil and gas producers, wind energy developers, agriculture, and other construction projects planned in regions where the bat habitat exists.


The IPAA and American Petroleum Institute last month urged the Fish and Wildlife Service to exempt oil and gas development activities from the prohibition against incidental take of the bat through the proposed 4(d) rule — noting that their industry has far less an impact on bat habitat than the forest management activities already exempted.


"Independent oil and natural gas producers are good stewards of our land and are committed to protecting the environment. Energy production and species conservation can go hand in hand, but not under the current regulatory framework," he said.


U.S. Sen. John Boozman, R-Ark., is also raising concerns about the designation.


"The decline in this bat population is caused by a disease — White Nose Syndrome. The bat is not threatened by a loss of habitat. Yet the Fish and Wildlife Service is a bureaucratic machine that tries to solve every problem with the same answer: protect habitat," Boozman said. "The agency needs to focus on addressing the root of the problem — the disease — instead of causing problems for landowners, foresters and farmers."


Boozman said he has organized a group of 23 U.S. Senators to weigh in on the interim rule to limit its impact on economic development. He is also asking Arkansans to speak up.


"The current interim rule is open for public comments until July 1, and I encourage every concerned Arkansan to make their voice heard loud and clear," he said.


In carving out exemptions for the timber industry, Braswell said that Fish and Wildlife is recognizing the benefits that forest management practices actually have on the bat population.


"Forest management is part of the solution," he said.


Arkansas State Forester Joe Fox said the bat population in Arkansas has not been devastated as it has in other states where white nose syndrome is more prevalent, and some steps have been taken to try to limit the spread of the fungus that can thrive in the cool, damp caves where the bats hibernate. The bats can be found hibernating in a few caves in the Ozark and Ouachita national forests, he said.


Fox noted that the population of bats has not declined sharply as it has in more northern states, which suggests that forest thinning and proscribed fires to clear underbrush may actually be helpful to the bats and other wildlife. Arkansas is overstocked with trees, he said, which left alone could lead to devastating forest fires.


Braswell said the timber industry in Arkansas will continue to work with the National Forest Service to have a clear understanding of how the 4(d) rule will impact tree harvesting in the Ozark and Ouachita forests.


"We have already met with our folks in the state and have a good working relationship with them. So, I think we have an opportunity to make sure we continue to do that," Braswell said.


Dana Lee Cole, executive director of the Hardwood Federation, said there are still some unanswered questions for the timber industry as a whole. In particular, she said, the Fish and Wildlife Service needs to clarify how to identify when and where the bats are roosting as well as where they are hibernating.


Cole said the industry is also concerned about how the rule will be interpreted by the U.S. Forest Service as it decides what timber operations are allowed to take place on the federal lands.


"There has been good progress so far, but more needs to be made," she said.