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Environment: Bat-killing fungus found in Arkansas

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Bat-killing white-nose syndrome continues to spread.

New tests enable earlier detection

By Summit Voice

SUMMIT COUNTY — Better lab tests may help biologists get a little bit of a jump on a bat-killing disease that is spreading westward across the country.

Last week, state biologists in Arkansas said they’ve confirmed the presence of the fungus that causes white-nose syndrome in two northern Arkansas caves by using the updated tests. The samples were collected last winter from the walls of the caves and from bats, though there are no reports of dead or sick bats.

White-nose syndrome was first reported in New York in the winter of 2006-2007. Since then, the disease has killed more than 6 million bats, in some places all but wiping out local populations. Since bats help pollinate many plant species and eat huge amounts of insects, the disease has huge economic and ecological implications.

Scientists have estimated the economic value of insect-eating bats to American agriculture at $22 billion annually. Bats also eat tons of insects harmful to forests, and their guano is essential to the survival of extremely rare cave organisms, such as cave salamanders and fish.

“This is just the latest piece of clear evidence that the white-nose fungus is continuing to spread west,”  said Mollie Matteson, a bat specialist with the Center for Biological Diversity. “What’s troubling is that even though scientists are now able to find the fungus sooner, land managers in the western part of the country have still not widely adopted preemptive disease-containment measures. When it comes to the survival of America’s bats, they’re playing a dangerous game of Russian roulette.”

Matteson was referring to an inconsistent set of regulations governing access to caves and mines on public lands. A handful of caves have been closed permanently. Some are closed seasonally, and land managers are relying on an adaptive management approach, as the approach of the disease could trigger additional closures.

Thousands of caves on western public lands remain open to recreational use. According to Matteson, that means the disease could be inadvertently introduced by cave visitors, perhaps resulting in a new hot-spot that could enable the disease to catch hold in the West.

There is no known cure for white-nose syndrome, which has afflicted seven bat species so far and pushed several of them to the brink of regional extirpation. Many leading bat biologists have emphasized precautionary measures, such as closures and site-specific caving gear requirements, as the best management response.

The state of Arkansas closed most of its state-owned caves to human access in 2009 and 2010. The U.S. Forest Service closed caves on Arkansas national forests in 2009, with the exception of Blanchard Springs Caverns, which remains open to public visitation. Bats are likely the primary carrier of the fungal pathogen from one site to another, but fungal spores may also be picked up unwittingly by people and carried to new sites on boots, clothing and caving gear.

White-nose syndrome has been called the worst wildlife health crisis in recent memory, and has caused mortality rates among bats ranging up to 100 percent in affected caves. The disease has been confirmed in 22 states, and the fungus has been found in another three: Oklahoma, Iowa and now Arkansas.

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