Multiple conservation groups are uniting to confront the deficiencies in the Nantahala-Pisgah Forest Plan. Six organizations issued a notice of intent on July 26 to sue the U.S. Forest Service through legal action in U.S. District Court, demanding that the agency expand efforts to safeguard the habitat of endangered forest bats, whose fate hangs in the balance.
The Southern Environmental Law Center, or SELC, representing MountainTrue, the Sierra Club, The Wilderness Society, Defenders of Wildlife, and the Center for Biological Diversity, sent a 60-day Notice of Intent to Sue under the Endangered Species Act, contending that the Forest Service’s reliance on faulty and inadequate information, such as the ecological impact of climate change, places endangered wildlife at risk.
SELC attorney Sam Evans told Carolina Public Press over the phone that endangered bats “are crashing in population throughout their ranges.”
The forests include four bats classified as federally endangered, including the northern long-eared bat. During the creation of the forest plan, the Forest Service asked the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, or FWS, to consult on six bat species, four of which are endangered and two of which are being considered for federal protection.
Bat populations are in decline due to white-nose syndrome, a disease caused by a fungus responsible for killing millions of bats throughout North America, and habitat loss.
“The national forests are their best hope. They are the refuge for the species,” Evans said, suggesting that the national forests in Western North Carolina can potentially provide habitat conditions needed to help restore bat populations. “If our forest bats are going to make it, it’s going to be because of the decisions that we make on public lands.”
The recently completed Nantahala-Pisgah national forest land management plan can potentially facilitate the survival of imperiled species, such as bats and other creatures. While there are other species in the Southeast on the verge of extinction, there are few that have seen their numbers decline so rapidly. According to Jeremy Coleman of the FWS, in some locations, close to 90% of certain bat species have been eliminated.
The loss of bat populations may have substantial ecological consequences for other animals up and down the food chain.
The importance of forest bats to the ecosystem
Bats provide vital ecosystem services by consuming insect pests, pollinating plants and dispersing seeds. According to the FWS, bats eat enough insects to save more than $3 billion per year in crop damage and pesticide costs. The presence or absence of bats can also be used as indicators of the overall health of a landscape.
The northern long-eared bat was listed as endangered on Nov. 30 and faces numerous threats, including forest fragmentation, climate change, human disturbance and white-nose syndrome. The FWS predicts that without taking additional protective action, the bat will be extinct by 2060.
Jane Davenport, senior attorney at Defenders of Wildlife, said the bats “rely on intact, mature forests to forage and rear their young. Heavy logging in some of their last and best habitat on the East Coast may tip the populations over the edge.”
Passed in 1973, the Endangered Species Act, or ESA, is a program for the conservation of threatened and endangered plants, animals and the habitats in which they live. The law requires federal agencies, such as the Forest Service, to ensure their actions don’t impact the existence of any species listed under the ESA.
The Forest Service is obligated to develop management strategies that contribute to the recovery of imperiled species. The agency’s approach for the management of endangered species and their habitats is laid out in a land management plan.
National forests are required to have a plan describing the strategic direction for the management of forest resources that is revised every 10-15 years or when conditions require an update. The management of forest resources was guided by the 1976 National Forest Management Act.
The forest plan aims to be consistent with the biological opinions of the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service to increase population size and enhance or restore suitable habitat for federally listed species.
The National Forests in North Carolina office, or NFNC, based in Asheville and overseeing the state’s four national forests, manages the revision of the plan.
While the 1976 law requires each forest to have a plan, a single plan covers the two national forests in the mountain region and was last updated in 1994. The forests are combined into one plan to emphasize that both forests are managed within a consistent framework.
The main issues raised by conservation groups
The notice-of-intent letter said the Forest Service violated the ESA in multiple ways: In all, the notice includes “five failures” of the Forest Service to provide the FWS with the best available science and asserts that the Forest Service relied on the FWS’ biological opinion that was inaccurate, incomplete and flawed.
The SELC alleges that the Forest Service predicts a far too optimistic future for the health of the forests. For example, the Forest Service relayed inaccurate and illogical assumptions about future forest disturbances — such as wildfire, storms and disease — that don’t take into account changes due to climate change. Among other claims are that the Forest Service failed to present accurate information on logging on private and state lands that would have a cumulative impact on bat habitat.
Obscuring the impact of the future health of the forest may have led the FWS to reach different conclusions regarding its evaluation of bat habitat.
The SELC’s submitted letter also points out a litany of flaws in the “biological opinion” provided by the FWS to the Forest Service regarding actions for bat protection.
The flawed information and analysis led to the creation of a forest plan that expands logging that will “worsen an already catastrophically bad situation for many of the listed bat species [and their] already-limited potential for recovery,” said the letter.
In February, Evans expressed his disappointment in the final forest management plan.
“The Forest Service had a once-in-a-generation opportunity to map out a better future for these two incredible forests, but this forest plan is instead a step backward,” he said.
Other organizations involved with the forest plan’s development, including the Wilderness Society, the Sierra Club and MountainTrue, share his concern that the final plan significantly expands the footprint of logging locations and volumes.
According to Evans, northern long-eared bat habitat is challenging to predict, so the animals require relatively large tracts of connected forest.
During the summer and portions of the fall and spring, northern long-eared bats roost in colonies underneath bark, in tree cavities or in crevices in live and dead trees. The species also has a strong association with large tracts of older forest. As a result, forest fragmentation, logging and forest loss threaten its habitat.
The Forest Service conducts timber harvesting through projects developed and guided by strategies and goals outlined in the forest plan, with environmental organizations often publicly reviewing and scrutinizing timber projects. Federal law requires that each project examine the impact on endangered species and habitats.
Expansion of logging in critical habitats
Critics believe that flawed assumptions in the forest plan could lead to timber projects that have a significant cumulative impact on the long-term survival of endangered bats and other species.
“The impact of one project after another is when you begin to see the cumulative impact,” said Evans. “The levels of logging are too high in this plan.”
Evans said the group will continue to oppose this plan and projects that harm old-growth forests and rare species.
While concerns include other endangered and threatened species, “bats are a perfect example of what went wrong in this planning process.” Primarily, he explained, the forest plan expands timber harvesting into over 100,000 acres of known old-growth, state-recognized National Heritage Natural Areas and Wilderness Inventory Areas. Those areas, they said in the notice of intent, provide crucial habitat for listed species.
The letter of intent asserts that the Forest Service violated its duty to provide the FWS with the best available science and relied on the FWS’ faulty biological opinion.
Under the Endangered Species Act, a plaintiff is required to provide notice no less than 60 days before filing a lawsuit.
Evans hopes that the Forest Service will amend the forest plan to limit timber harvesting in places that can impact imperiled bat species.
“Bats are not our only concern,” he said. “This letter deals with the Endangered Species Act, but just because we’re not mentioning other concerns here doesn’t mean that we won’t raise them later.”
Response from U.S. Forest Service
National Forest spokesperson Jenifer Bunty wrote in an email to CPP that the agency can’t comment on the status of ongoing litigation.
“The revised plan was developed in coordination with numerous agencies, organizations and the public, and builds on thousands of ideas incorporated over many years. Diverse opinions and ideas about how to manage the Nantahala and Pisgah are inherent in the complexity of carrying out the Forest Service’s multiple-use mission in some of the most visited and biodiverse national forests in the country,” she said. “Our commitment is that we will always strive to listen to and convene diverse perspectives to make the best decisions, informed by science, so we can create healthy and resilient forests now and for the future.”
Evans acknowledged the challenging work of public servants “to protect our public lands and how seriously they take their jobs.”
The decision to pursue a lawsuit on behalf of six conservation groups is not something, he said, that the groups take lightly.
“We are doing it because we think it’s our role to prevent bad things from happening to these species,” Evans said.
The loss of bat habitat is part of environmentalists’ broader concern regarding a rapid loss of species biodiversity and the instability of ecosystems in the Southern Appalachians.
The Forest Service will have 60 days to adapt the plan.
Evans suggests that the Forest Service can consult again with the FWS to determine actions to protect bat habitat and issue an amendment to the forest plan.
Evans said that due to the case’s complexity, a court decision could take up to a year, and its timeline may depend on the court’s current queue of cases.
Critics of environmental litigation, such as the Property and Environment Research Center in Bozeman, Mont., say that lawsuits can directly harm species by delaying projects essential to conserving their habitat.
Evans told CPP that any action the groups take with respect to the plan “isn’t going to stop good projects.”
Evans said that this would be the first time the SELC has filed a lawsuit against Pisgah and Nantahala national forests.
Environmental organizations may increasingly use litigation as a strategy to compel government agencies to address biodiversity and habitat loss accelerated by a warming climate in relation to climate change.
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