FORT DRUM —Enclosed in a tent of netting, four pairs of hands gripped bats out of the air, like dollar bills in the fair's cash booth.
Biologists from Fort Drum and the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Services were collecting and tagging little brown bats from a bat box on post. The information collected from Tuesday night's tagging will be used to get an estimate of bat populations and about white-nose syndrome.
White-nose syndrome, a white fungus that collects on the noses and wings of hibernating bats, has killed more than 1 million cave-hibernating bats in the state since it was first discovered near Albany in 2006. Since then, the fungal disease has spread to other states and several provinces in Canada.
Robyn A. Niver, endangered species biologist for the U.S., said Tuesday's tagging was her first bat sighting of the season.
"We're here to help Fort Drum with a research project looking at little brown bats and the effects of white-nose syndrome on them," she said. We're living a huge environmental experiment right now. We've never witnessed widespread losses of animals like this ever in our lifetimes."
The information gathered, Ms. Niver said, will also be used to help the U.S. make a final decision on whether the eastern small-footed and northern long-eared bats warrant additional protection under the Endangered Species Act. If the species receive federal protection, they will also gain protection from the state Department of Environmental Conservation.
Carl J. Herzog, DEC wildlife biologist in Albany, said because of the state's drastic decline in bat numbers, DEC was able to supply the service with information that supports the request to add these species to the endangered list.
"We were among the key suppliers for information to help them determine that these species should be placed on the list for additional protection," Mr. Herzog said. "We're really ground zero for white-nose syndrome. The numbers we gave the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service are figured very highly in the mix."
The service is conducting a more thorough review to determine whether the bats should be added to the federal list of endangered and threatened wildlife. A decision is expected sometime in late summer.
In Jefferson County, the bat population has declined more than 50 percent during the past couple of years,
If the two species are added to the federal list, they also will be considered endangered in the state, said James F. Farquhar, a DEC Region 6 wildlife biologist.
"The biggest loss we saw was at Glen Park," Mr. Farquhar said. "This is a fairly big step the feds are taking because they get requests often."
There are 12 bat species on the federal endangered list, including the Indiana bat, the most common found in Northern New York, and one on the threatened list: nine throughout the United States and four more around the world.
Northern long-eared bats used to be abundant in the state, Mr. Herzog said. They are not easy to count, like the Indiana bat, because the long-eared bats tend to hibernate in cracks and crevices.
"They certainly were not rare by any stretch of the imagination," he said. "But today we already are at scary low numbers for the northern long-eared. We've seen a decline by 98 or 99 percent. Before white-nose syndrome you had a 30 percent chance of catching one. These days, the last account of numbers we did in summer 2010 was 0.3 percent."
The small-footed species, Mr. Herzog said, was rare to begin with in the state. White-nose syndrome has had less of an impact on this species as well as the big brown bat, Mr. Herzog said. DEC is still trying to determine why some bats are more susceptible than others to the fungus.
What will the consequence be if bat die-off continues?
"Everybody asks that question and I wish I had the answer," Mr. Herzog said. "The best objective answer is we really don't know."
One thing is pretty certain though.
"They are pretty effective insect eaters," Mr. Farquhar said. "Ecologically, bats play a strong role in knocking the excess amount of bugs off."
Mr. Farquhar said bats are important to the ecosystem and can eat up to their body weight in bugs per night.
"That adds up to quite a bit of bugs," he said.
Adding the bats to a list of endangered species does not protect them from die-off caused by white-nose syndrome.
"It does give us added regulations to prevent manmade threats that could cause additional impact on them," Mr. Herzog said. "But of course it is not going to help us address the most important threat to them right now. It's not a game changer in this case. We're really in uncharted territory, to deal with species that have declined so rapidly in such a short amount of time."