Impacts to gray bats still uncertain
By Summit Voice
FRISCO — The largest known colony of endangered gray bats is threatened by white-nose syndrome, a fungal disease that has already wiped out millions of bats from New England to the Southeast and into the Midwest.
U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service officials announced this week that the disease was confirmed at Fern Cave National Wildlife Refuge in Jackson County, Alabama. The refuge was created to protect gray bats.
White-nose syndrome was discovered in tri-colored bats near the two entrances to the cave. White-nose syndrome is not currently known to cause mortality in gray bats, the detection of infected bats at Fern Cave is cause for concern, federal biologists said.
The disease was first documented in New York in 2006 and has spread into 22 states and five Canadian provinces. Mortality rates from the disease has reached 100 percent at some sites.
Bats with WNS may exhibit unusual behavior during cold winter months, including flying outside during the day and clustering near the entrances of caves and mines where they hibernate. Bats have been found sick and dying in unprecedented numbers near affected sites.
“With over a million hibernating gray bats, Fern Cave is undoubtedly the single most significant hibernaculum for the species,” said Paul McKenzie, endangered species Coordinator for the USFWS. “Although mass mortality of gray bats has not yet been confirmed from … infected caves in which the species hibernates, the documentation of the disease from Fern Cave is extremely alarming and could be catastrophic,” McKenzie said.
“With this one cave containing more than a third of the world’s gray bats, all the alarm bells should be going off,” said Mollie Matteson, a bat specialist with the Center for Biological Diversity. “White-nose syndrome is now threatening the very survival of the gray bat and several other species,” said Matteson, who has been advocating for stronger protective measures to try and prevent the spread of the disease.
A number of other bat species found at Fern Cave have been devastated by the disease, including endangered Indiana bats, which have declined by more than 70 percent, and tri-colored bats, which have declined by more than 95 percent and have been observed in the cave with the telltale fuzzy white muzzle characteristic of the disease.
The Center for Biological Diversity petitioned for Endangered Species Act protection for three other species that have been devastated by the disease: eastern small-footed bats, northern long-eared bats and little brown bats. All three species are expected to be protected as endangered species later this year. The Center is working on another petition for tri-colored bats.
“With white-nose syndrome wiping out bats across the eastern United States, it should be all hands on deck. But tragically the response to this crisis continues to be lackluster,” said Matteson. “Look, it’s not just that bats are fascinating, as our only flying mammals — they’re also supremely important for farming, for our food security. They eat thousands of tons of insects, including crop pests, every year.”
Researchers have estimated the economic value of bug-eating bats to American agriculture at $22 billion and possibly as much as $53 billion annually. Yet federal funding for white-nose syndrome research and disease response coordination has been scarce the past several years and is likely to become even scarcer in the 2013 and 2014 federal budgets. Far too little is being done to stop the spread of the disease,” Matteson said.
The USFWS is leading a cooperative effort with federal and state agencies, tribes, researchers, universities and other non-government organizations to understand and manage the spread of WNS. In addition to developing science-based protocols and guidance for land management agencies and other partners to minimize the spread of WNS, the Service has funded numerous research projects to support and assess management recommendations and improve our basic understanding of the dynamics of the disease.
“We need to do more to stop this terrible disease that is killing so many of our bats,” said Matteson. “We need to find a cure, but until we do, we need to stay out of caves.”