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A fungal disease responsible for killing millions of cave-dwelling bats across North America is pushing some species to the brink of extinction, including bats species vital to Minnesota. 

The United States Fish and Wildlife Service announced a proposal this month to list the tricolored bat as endangered under the Endangered Species Act — the proposal comes after an extensive review determined tricolored bat colonies have declined more than 90%.

The decline of the species is driven by white-nose syndrome; a fungal disease that disrupts torpor during hibernation. Once awake, the bats are prone to starvation.  

In Minnesota, the disease is also the plight of little brown bats and northern long-eared bats.

Northern long-eared bats, listed as threatened in 2015, are also proposed to be listed as endangered, due largely to white-nose syndrome

Endangered species are those that are in danger of extinction, while threatened species are defined as likely to become endangered in the foreseeable future, according to the USFWS.

Melissa Boman, a mammal specialist with the Minnesota Department of Natural Resources, said bats play an important role in the ecosystem as they feed on insects to store up fat for the winter. 

Bats commonly eat beetles and other eat tree-boring insects, which improves forest health. They also provide a vital ecological service for agricultural landscapes when they feed on crop pests. 

According to the U.S. Geological Survey, the decline of bat populations is costly. Studies estimate the pest-control services from bats are worth over $3 billion annually in dollars otherwise spent on pesticide. 

"Bats are also just intrinsically valuable," Boman said, adding bias against the species' even slowed biological research. "We're just starting to learn a lot about bats." 

And, what researchers are learning about language develop, navigation and spacial memory in bats could prove valuable to solving human diseases, such as Alzheimers and dementia. 

Boman said it's hard to estimate how many bats remain on the landscape in Minnesota, but researchers do know bat populations will be extremely difficult to rebound — that's partially because bats are slow to reproduce, with only a single pup each year. 

With the proposal to list two Minnesota species as endangered, Boman said she's hoping the news will create more opportunities to generate appreciation for bats, the same way conservation efforts have given rise to pollinator gardens and enthusiasm for native bees. 

But, the conservation challenges facing bats are weighty. 

And as for a population rebound, "I don't think we'll see it in our lifetime," Boman said. 

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