Washington, DC — The appalling failure of a federally funded effort to create a captive breeding colony of endangered Virginia big-eared bats may stymie important steps to combat the incurable white-nose syndrome that is wiping out eastern bat populations, according to documents released today by Public Employees for Environmental Responsibility (PEER). Nearly all of the 40 healthy endangered Virginia big-eared bats collected by the Smithsonian Institution’s Conservation and Research Center (CRC) this past November are now dead and the few survivors have been deemed too ill too move.
Prompted by a PEER complaint, the U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service evaluated the CRC project and cited “significant mortality” but could not find any lessons had been learned that would help establish “best husbandry and health guidelines” – which was the stated goal of the project. As a result, the agency will have to perform a detailed dissection of the “management and health problems experienced” before funding any more captive breeding projects to help endangered bat populations stave off extinction.
Records obtained by PEER from the Fish & Wildlife Service under the Freedom of Information Act depict ghoulish conditions in which mistakes repeatedly cascaded into mortality. Several bats suffered damage to their limbs as they got stuck or were pried off of poorly constructed cages, leading to amputations of the damaged parts. These bats could no longer perch and scraped themselves crawling across the cage floor, with those abrasions becoming infected, leading to death. Preliminary pathology reports also show that bats had been punctured, bruised, and had suffered drastic weight loss.
Virtually every problem found in the Service’s veterinary evaluation was foretold in a December 2009 report by a bat consultant, Missy Singleton, who was hired by CRC but whose input apparently was not well received. “Months ago, Ms. Singleton called each one of these issues that the Fish & Wildlife Service is just now acknowledging,” stated PEER Staff Counsel Christine Erickson, who filed the complaint. “The Service permitted these endangered species to be sacrificed for the sake of science but no one can articulate any lesson learned that justified this tragedy. If these bats had been humans, this would be one heck of a malpractice suit.”
Despite all of the mishaps, the Fish & Wildlife Service concluded that it would not revoke the CRC permit in response to the PEER complaint and found no evidence that Center staff “acted in an unprofessional or inhumane manner.” This review, however, was led by the two officials most responsible for funding the project. Moreover, e-mails obtained by PEER showed the two reviewers were in constant contact with CRC and participated in management meetings. The entire review was completed in a single tour and meeting. Missy Singleton was not interviewed, nor was her report even listed as among the material consulted.
“The Fish & Wildlife Service failed to conduct what anyone could call an independent review and, predictably, produced a report which in essence concluded ‘sh*t happens’,” remarked PEER Executive Director Jeff Ruch, who is writing to congressional appropriators to request that they move future white-nose syndrome funding to the Biological Resources Discipline of the U.S. Geological Survey, containing long-term population scientists, many of whom were drawn from the Fish & Wildlife Services when the BRD was created in a mid-90s reorganization. “This episode leads us to believe that the Service is not capable of overseeing complex science in this area where we do not have the luxury of playing office politics at the expense of these critically endangered animals.”
Of the original 40 bats collected by the CRC, there are only 8 survivors and those are in steep decline. Bat care specialists have pleaded with the Service to end the project and complained that established and successful bat care methods were repeatedly ignored. No successful breeding took place during the project. The CRC has yet to make public detailed necropsy and other health monitoring reports despite formal requests.