PITTSBURGH - More than 99 percent of Pennsylvania's bats have died from white-nose syndrome, prompting state and federal authorities to consider listing several species as endangered.
The state's timber, oil, and gas industries fear giving bats protected status would hurt business and lead to job loss.
"I'm not sure that it can get much worse than what's already happened in Pennsylvania. The state has had more losses of bats than any other state in the country," said Katie Gillis, a biologist for Bat Conservation International in Austin, Texas.
Researchers documented instances of the fungus in nine bat species in 21 U.S. states and four Canadian provinces. It has killed more than 5.7 million bats nationwide since its discovery in a New York cave six years ago.
The fungus damages bats' connective tissues, muscles, and skin and disrupts hibernation. Bats wake up dehydrated and hungry during colder months, when they cannot find insects to eat. A white fungus encircles the noses of some, but not all, infected bats.
In Pennsylvania, the state Game Commission is soliciting comments about giving endangered status to the tricolored bat, the little brown bat, and the northern long-eared bat.
Industry representatives expressed concern about that, said Jerry Feaser, a spokesman for the Pennsylvania Game Commission.
Paul Lyskava, executive director of the Pennsylvania Forest Products Association, said listing some bat species as endangered could damage the logging and timber industries. In some cases, it could mean no tree removals between April 1 and Nov. 15, he said.
"Preserving the bats is very important. What the Game Commission is considering is going too far, though. What's happening to bats is taking place in the caves, not in trees," Lyskava said.
Pennsylvania is the largest producer of hardwoods in the United States, and 60,000 people are employed by forestry companies in the state.
Some legislators also object to protected status.
"I like bats. I just like humans better," said State Rep. Jeff Pyle, whose district in Armstrong and Indiana Counties includes mining, farming, and hydraulic fracturing operations.
"You want to shut down agriculture, mining, and the oil and gas industry? That's what this would do. We have an awful lot of people working in natural resources. This would have a horrible economic impact and would hit Armstrong County like a big punch in the gut," he said.
Gillis thinks such opposition is shortsighted. "The logging industry will be more hurt by sick and diseased forests than by taking steps to protect bats," she said.
The typical bat eats 3,000 to 4,000 insects nightly. Bats provide pest-control to agriculture valued from $3.7 billion to $53 billion a year, studies show.
Some conservation groups say the Game Commission is moving too slowly.
"When you have 99 percent of various bat species killed in three years, federal law requires creation of a recovery plan," said Mollie Matteson, a conservation biologist at the Center for Biological Diversity in Tucson, Ariz.
If the state does not take action, the government might, said Ann Froschauer, a spokeswoman for the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, which oversees the Endangered Species Act.
The agency will decide by October whether to list the eastern small-footed and northern long-eared bats, she said.
"It would take hundreds and hundreds of years for bats to reproduce to their previous levels. Caves remain infected, and that makes this a real longer-term problem because there's really nothing to get rid of the fungus. It's very different than many other wildlife problems," Froschauer said.
The syndrome could impact other areas of agriculture, said Greg Turner, a biologist who studies bats for the Game Commission.
"We may see notable increases in bugs on the windshields or in crop damage. It's hard to predict," he said.
This winter, Turner will visit areas of the state first affected in 2009 to see whether there are signs of repopulation.
Researchers are starting to study summer habitats of bats, about which little is known.