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White-nose syndrome has reduced some bat populations 94 per cent.Ryan von Linden/The Canadian Press

The federal government has listed three species of bats whose populations have been decimated by a highly contagious fungal disease as endangered animals under the Species at Risk Act, but some scientists worry that extensive bureaucratic delays may have already sealed their fate, as well as the dozens that wait for the same legal protection.

The three species – little brown bats, northern long-eared bats, and tri-coloured bats – have seen their populations reduced by 94 per cent since 2010 due to white-nose syndrome, a fungal disease transferred from Europe to the east coast of North America in 2006.

"I think the concern is epitomized by little brown bats," said Brock Fenton, a professor emeritus of behaviour and ecology of bats at Western University. He said that before the disease spread, the little brown bats species was one of the most common mammals in North America, with more than six million in the American northeast. Now, there are virtually none left in the provinces where white-nose syndrome has spread: Ontario, Quebec, Nova Scotia, New Brunswick and Prince Edward Island.

"If you lose millions of them from the population, there's not much potential for the population to rebound in any kind of a hurry," Mr. Fenton said.

In February 2012, all three species were given an emergency assessment by the Committee on the Status of Endangered Wildlife in Canada and recommended for listing as an endangered species. Some provinces acted quickly, including Ontario, which moved to protect the species within three months. But it took over two years for the federal government to follow suit.

The delay represents an overarching issue of severe backlog in the government's endangerment listing process. Of the 67 species that have been recommended for protection since 2011, these are the first three that the government has added to the list.

COSEWIC, a government appointed-expert panel, makes detailed assessments of plant and animal species and sends recommendations for endangerment listing once a year to the federal minister of the environment. It is then the minister's responsibility to table those recommendations to cabinet.

Under the Species at Risk Act, the government then has nine months to decide if a species should be listed or not. If this time period elapses with no decision, the listing should occur automatically, according to the law.

But the Act does not specify how long the environment minister can take to table COSEWIC's recommendations to cabinet. The federal government has used this indefinite period as the time when departments under whose purview a species may fall – including Environment Canada, the Department of Fisheries and Oceans or Parks Canada – conduct their own internal reviews.

"They have made an art form of inaction. It's astonishing," said Jeremy Kerr, a conservation biologist and professor at the University of Ottawa. "What the legislation does not attempt to do is explain how somebody is supposed to pick up a file and walk down the hall and give it to the minister who then will go to cabinet with it. There's a certain level of trust that's kind of built into this and what they've done is they've found a way to simply avoid transmitting information."

Formally listing a species is just the first step toward tackling threats of extinction. The federal government must then define its recovery strategy, followed by implementation of an action plan to protect the endangered species. But of the roughly 700 legally listed endangered species, less than 10 have made it to the final stage of this process.

"It's no secret that this government is not particularly concerned about extinction of species," said Sarah Otto, director of the Biodiversity Research Centre at the University of British Columbia. "Every year we wait is a year it gets harder to save these species. And it does get more expensive. We're essentially losing options."

Ms. Otto said that if the government doesn't speed up its process, it's possible all three bat species will become extinct as the disease spreads westward. There's currently no scientific solution to stop the spread.

She also said more provincial governments need to follow the federal government's steps. Federal listing will only protect bats on federal lands, which on average makes up just five per cent of provincial territory.

"If we want to conserve this species it has to be an all-out effort. Losing bats is a potentially major economic impact to Canada," she said. "They are a contribution to our views of the world, our image of the world and if we lose these bats, our natural heritage is reduced."

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