It has been a roller coaster of a winter. A week ago, the forecast called for spring-like conditions.
Now, we are in for an arctic blast, perhaps the coldest of the season. If you think it's been tough for your body to adjust to the volatile temperatures, try living outside.
Thanks to last weekend's warmer weather, my family and I decided it was time to get outside with a mid-winter campfire. We gathered all the dry wood we could find and got a roaring fire built to push away the chill in the nighttime air. I didn't expect what came next.
A bat swooped overhead. For a minute, it felt like the dog days of summer. But one thing was different. There were no bugs in the air. This bat had been duped by Mother Nature's mid-winter trick.
I will admit my first thought when I saw the bat was not good. White nose syndrome (WNS) dramatically affects the hibernation patterns of bats. So far, the deadly disease has been found in 23 of the state's counties and is suspected of killing bats in seven more.
Fortunately, York is not one of those counties. It's most likely our campfire friend was awakened from his wintertime slumber by the same burst of southern air that brought us outside.
But throughout much of Pennsylvania, the news is not good. WNS is decimating the state's bat population. In fact, late last year, the Game Commission seriously considered taking strong action to protect three species of bats that have nearly disappeared as the fungal disease spreads across the state.
Biologists studying the issue say those species have seen their populations plunge by more than 98% since just 2008. It is an unsustainable decline. We've got a crash on our hands.
But statewide protection comes with serious consequences -- mostly of the fiscal variety. If new regulations are put in place, the state's timber industry would be forced to limit wintertime activity.
Many of the state's wind-driven turbines could face new restrictions. And don't forget Pennsylvania's booming natural gas industry. An effort to protect bats would affect the folks drilling in the state's northern forests and mountains. There is another side of this financial equation, though. If we don't protect the bats, we could all lose money.
While everyone has heard the creepy, storybook tales about bats, we rarely hear their good side. Bats are bug-eating machines. The average bat eats as many as 4,000 bugs every night. Farmers say it adds up to billions of dollars' worth of free pesticide each year. If we save the bats, they remind us, we save big dollars at the grocery store.
After listening to both sides of the story and dealing with strong pressure from legislators and industrial leaders, the Game Commission decided its best course of action was to do nothing. It pulled the idea of added protection for bats off the table.
But the debate continues to grow about what to do next. As it does, it is important to remember the agency was aiming for a "state" listing. It is a significantly different format than a federal protected-species listing, which comes with much more stringent regulations.
The Commission's goal is to stabilize and rebuild the population before any action from the strong-armed folks in Washington is needed. But with immense pressure against any restrictions, the fight will be tough.
Just as our weather has been hot and cold, so has the battle to protect the state's dying bat population. You and I can handle the volatile temperatures. But our beloved bats may not be so fortunate.
-- Andy Snyder writes about the outdoors for The York Dispatch. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.