Biodiversity: Bat-killing disease now west of the Mississippi

A U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service photo shows a bat with symptoms of white nose syndrome.

Conservation advocates seek western cave closures, more funds for research and prevention

By Summit Voice

SUMMIT COUNTY — With bat-killing white nose syndrome now documented in Missouri, conservation advocates say more action and more funding is needed to try and stop the spread of the disease, and the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service last week announced seven grant awards worth $1.4 million for more research projects.

“Bats are crucial to our nation’s ecosystems and our economy,” said USFWS director Dan Ashe. “These grants provide critical support for the Service and our partners in addressing this unprecedented wildlife crisis.”

“Research will continue to be essential to the response to white-nose syndrome in North America,” said Dr. Jeremy Coleman, the Service’s national white nose syndrome coordinator. “We have made incredible progress in our understanding of the disease and how it affects bats, but we still have work to do. These projects will help further our understanding of white nose syndrome and the tools available to manage this devastating disease.”

Funded projects include detailed studies of Geomyces destructans, the fungus demonstrated to cause WNS, including how it interacts with bats and the environment; developing a better understanding of how white nose syndrome is transmitted; determining the mechanics of G. destructans infections in bats, including the susceptibility and resistance of bats to the infection; determining how persistent the fungus is in the environment; and identifying and developing non-chemical control options for treatment and prevention of spread of G. destructans.

White-nose syndrome has been confirmed in 19 states and four Canadian provinces at caves and mines where bats hibernate, and G. destructans has been detected on bats in one additional state. Winter hibernacula surveys are wrapping up, but the disease is expected to continue to spread in the future. The disease has already killed about 7 million bats throughout the eastern United States and Canada since it was first documented in upstate New York in 2006.

In Missouri, lab results confirmed that bats from two caves in Lincoln County, north of St. Louis, were infected with the  fungus. The discovery is the first official report of the bat disease west of the Mississippi River. In 2010, the fungal pathogen was detected on asymptomatic bats in Missouri and Oklahoma.

“White-nose syndrome in Missouri is following the deadly pattern it has exhibited elsewhere,” said Mollie Matteson, a bat specialist with the Center for Biological Diversity, which has worked for years to raise funds for, and curb, the bat crisis. “First the fungus shows up on a few healthy bats. A couple of years later, the disease strikes. And if the pattern continues, we can expect that in another few years, the majority of Missouri’s hibernating bats will be dead.”

Bats provide vital services where they live. In Missouri, for example, it’s estimated that the state’s 775,000 gray bats eat more than 223 billion bugs each year.

Scientists estimate that, nationally, the loss of bats may cost farmers between $3.7 billion and $53 billion annually in crop losses and increased pesticide use, due to the disappearance of bats’ natural, freely provided pest control. Bats consume thousands of tons of insects every year.

Last month biologists confirmed white-nose syndrome for the first time in Alabama and Delaware, and National Park Service officials reported the bat disease for the first time in Acadia National Park in Maine and Great Smoky Mountain National Park in Tennessee and North Carolina. The disease has also been rapidly spreading this year to new locations in Kentucky, Ohio and Indiana, where it was documented for the first time last winter.

The bat epidemic is the worst wildlife-disease decline in U.S. history. Nine species of bat have been found with the fungus, and of these, six species have experienced mortality, several of them at rates approaching 100 percent. Biologists fear that several bat species, including the once-common little brown bat, may become extinct.

Scientists do not yet have an effective treatment; the only known way to contain the spread of white-nose is to reduce the risk of human transport of the fungus by closing caves to nonessential access and requiring decontamination procedures of those still entering caves.

Researchers believe the previously unknown fungus killing the bats was introduced to North America by cave visitors from Europe. There, the fungus has been discovered on bats in several countries, but it appears to do little to no harm to them.

Bats themselves can transmit the disease to each other and to new locations, but they are not capable of migrations greater than a few hundred miles. Fears of long-distance transport of fungus by people prompted limited cave closures on western federal lands following the discovery of the pathogen on asymptomatic bats in Missouri and western Oklahoma in 2010. However, western land managers have taken few precautionary measures against human spread since then.

In 2010 the Center filed a federal petition calling for the closure of bat caves on all federal lands in the lower 48 states as a precaution against the potential human spread of white-nose. Most federal lands in the eastern United States already have closure rules in place or require screening and decontamination of cave tourists, as is the case at Mammoth Cave National Park in Kentucky. But the majority of caves on western federal lands remain open, and decontamination procedures are not required.

“Now that white-nose syndrome is clearly at the doorstep of the West, there can be no more excuses for inaction on the part of western land mangers,” said Matteson. “This killer disease has shown over and over again that it moves in subtly at first, but before you know it there are dead bats all over the place.”

White-nose syndrome is now confirmed in 19 states and suspected in one; it is also confirmed in four Canadian provinces.

The loss of bug-eating bats may result in economic losses to American agriculture, as well as burgeoning populations of insects, no longer kept in check by bats. Scientists estimate that the loss of bats may cost farmers between $3.7 billion and $53 billion annually in crop losses and increased pesticide use, due to the disappearance of bats’ natural, freely provided pest control. Bats consume thousands of tons of insects every year.

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