The Fish and Wildlife Service postponed tightening protections for the northern long-eared bat Wednesday in order to develop flexible management tools that might ease industry and other concerns about potential conflicts with an endangered species.

The two-month delay puts off until March 31 the bat’s status change under the Endangered Species Act, and it comes as key Republican lawmakers push the federal agency for leeway in handling a bat that can inhabit dozens of states.

“We recognize that the change to endangered status will result in questions and concerns about establishing compliance under the Act for forestry, wind energy, infrastructure, and many other projects within the 37 States that comprise the range of the northern long-eared bat,” the FWS said.

The agency added that it is “committed to working proactively with stakeholders to conserve and recover northern long-eared bats while reducing impacts to landowners, where possible and practicable."

Thousands of projects could be affected.

The northern long-eared bat was listed as threatened in 2015. Since then, the continued spread of white-nose syndrome has put the species at greater risk of extinction.

Last November, the Fish and Wildlife Service published a final rule shifting the northern long-eared bat’s status under the Endangered Species Act. The rule was originally set to take effect Jan. 30 (Greenwire, Nov. 29, 2022).

When the endangered designation kicks in, the Fish and Wildlife Service will lose some species management flexibility provided through a so-called 4(d) rule that’s allowed for threatened species.

In a letter sent today, a dozen GOP lawmakers said that this transition could be “leaving countless infrastructure project consultations in limbo.”

Republican Sen. Shelley Moore Capito of West Virginia wrote that she and her colleagues are “deeply concerned” that the uplisting of the bat to endangered, when “combined with the current back logs,” will impede myriad undertakings.

“We continue to hear from states and stakeholders that the Service has an increasing back log of consultations that are delaying authorizations and progress on new infrastructure projects,” the senators wrote.

Capito, the ranking member on the Senate Environment and Public Works Committee, noted with approval that the FWS has indicated it is exploring new streamlined consultation procedures to reduce burdens and provide greater certainty for projects.

“We are encouraged that the agency is committed to issue this guidance,” the GOP senators wrote.

But environmentalists decried the Fish and Wildlife Service’s decision.

“The delay in protecting the northern long-eared bat is shameful,” said Tierra Curry, a senior scientist at the Center for Biological Diversity. “We’re in the grips of an extinction crisis but the Biden administration is all talk and no action. They’re still using the playbook the Trump administration’s fossil fuel cronies left behind.”

White-nose syndrome is caused by a fungus that can resemble white fuzz on bats’ muzzles and wings. The fungus spreads in cold, dark, damp places and infects bats during hibernation. Impacted bats wake up more often, causing dehydration and starvation before spring arrives (Greenwire, July 17, 2017).

The Fish and Wildlife Service said it has spread across nearly 80 percent of the northern long-eared bats’ entire range and is expected to affect 100 percent of the species' range by the end of the decade. It has caused estimated declines of 97 to 100 percent in affected northern long-eared bat populations.

To protect such endangered species, the Endangered Species Act bans their unintentional killing without preparation of an incidental take statement.

The Fish and Wildlife Service said that over the last three years it has completed Endangered Species Act consultations on 24,480 projects across the 37-state range for the northern long-eared bat. Many of these projects are not complete.

When the bat’s endangered status takes effect, the FWS said, “these projects would halt while the Service and the Federal action agency reinitiate consultation, which would affect projects covering the breadth of the species’ … range and nearly all aspects of the U.S. economy.”

The agency said it has identified 3,095 projects for which an incidental take statement will be needed and for which new “conservation tools and guidance documents” are under development.

These new tools include, for instance, an online site that will provide predetermined consultation outcomes and automatic project concurrence for some projects as well as voluntary guidance for wind facilities and private activities that involve habitat modification.

“Without these final tools in place, many new and existing projects that require consultation will likely experience project delays. The tools and guidance documents will also help private landowners evaluate their risk of taking northern long-eared bats,” the FWS said.