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Spreading bat disease prompts call for cave closures

A bat infected with white-nose syndrome. Photo by Ryan von Linden/New York Department of Environmental Conservation.

Science organization says human long-distance transmission is possible

By Summit Voice

SUMMIT COUNTY — The unchecked spread of white-nose syndrome, a deadly fungal disease that’s wiping out bat populations across eastern North America, has prompted a prominent scientific group to call for greater efforts to halt the potential for human spread of the disease.

Closing caves could help prevent a human-transmitted long-distance jump of the disease into a new region, such as the Rockies or the Pacific Northwest, where the disease could push more species to the brink of extinction.

According to the American Institute of Biological Sciences, the fungus is widespread, and that its spores are probably easily spread by humans.

“The potential of humans to spread white-nose syndrome is now widely recognized, and measures are being taken to quarantine some caves,” Bioscience editor-in-chief Dr. Timothy Beardsley wrote in a recent editorial. “Testing of more heroic interventions should continue, but until and if it is ruled out as a contributing factor, preventing human contamination of vulnerable environments should now be a priority.

“The country’s leading scientists understand the role people play in spreading this deadly bat disease,” said Mollie Matteson, a bat specialist with the Center for Biological Diversity, which this spring petitioned the White House for national action on the disease outbreak. “If we’re going to stop this disease from further decimating America’s bats, it’s time for federal policymakers to follow these scientific recommendations.”

The disease has killed more than 7 million bats in six years, at great cost to agriculture. Bats are critical pollinators of many wild and domesticated plants and also eat huge numbers of harmful insects.

In the eastern United States, caves on most federal lands, many state lands and some private lands are closed to non-essential human access to prevent spread of white-nose syndrome by people and to minimize disturbance to already weakened bat populations.

Access to caves in parts of the Rocky Mountain region is subject to strict decontamination procedures, but across much of the West, access is still mostly unrestricted.

White-nose syndrome has spread to 19 states and four Canadian provinces. Now considered the worst wildlife health crisis in North American history, the disease has been documented in seven bat species, and this winter was confirmed in Missouri, the first state west of the Mississippi River.

Two federally endangered bats have been struck by the malady: the Indiana bat and the gray bat. Several species, including the once common little brown bat, northern long-eared bat, and tri-colored bat, have declined by more than 90 percent in affected regions.

A number of states including Massachusetts, Vermont, Wisconsin and Pennsylvania have added, or are in the process of adding, white-nose-affected bat species to their state endangered species lists.

The Center has been a leader in the effort to enact stronger measures, including calling for cave closures on public lands, to protect bats threatened by white-nose syndrome. The Center petitioned all federal land-management agencies to close caves in 2010 and petitioned the White House Council on Environmental Quality earlier this year to direct the agencies to enact closures.

The Center has also formally requested Endangered Species Act protection for three bat species: the northern long-eared bat, the eastern small-footed bat and the little brown bat. In response, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service determined earlier this year that the northern long-eared and eastern small-footed bats may warrant protection, with a final decision due in 2013. The Service also intends to issue a decision on the little brown bat next year.

The overwhelming scientific consensus is that putting caves off-limits to people, except in emergencies or for important scientific research, is one of the best ways we know to slow this rapidly unfolding crisis. There’s no reason to delay this common-sense step,” Matteson said.

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