Conservation advocates call for more protective measures to protect bat populations
A bat-killing disease that has been spreading across the U.S. westward from the East Coast has now been found in the Far West. White-nose syndrome, which has devastated bat populations, was confirmed in a little brown bat near Noth Bend, in Washington State, according to the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service.
According to the USFWS, it’s the first recorded occurrence of white-nose syndrome in western North America. The fungal disease has killed more than six million beneficial insect-eating bats in North America since it was first documented nearly a decade ago. Most recently, biologists documented the spread of the disease in Oklahoma.
Hikers found the sick bat in early March near North Bend (about 30 miles east of Seattle), and took it to Progressive Animal Welfare Society (PAWS) for care. The bat died two days later, and had visible symptoms of a skin infection common in bats with WNS.
“We are extremely concerned about the confirmation of WNS in Washington state, about 1,300 miles from the previous westernmost detection of the fungus that causes the disease,” said U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service Director Dan Ashe.
“Bats are a crucial part of our ecology and provide essential pest control for our farmers, foresters and city residents, so it is important that we stay focused on stopping the spread of this fungus. People can help by following decontamination guidance to reduce the risk of accidentally transporting the fungus.”
Conservation advocates said the federal government has not been doing nearly enough to protect bat populations from the disease. The Center for Biological Diversity has been watch-dogging the response and claims that federal land managers should have used stricter measures, including cave closures, to prevent the spread of white-nose syndrome.
“It’s shocking and disturbing to see this disease reach Washington and indeed the western United States,” said Mollie Matteson, senior scientist with the Center for Biological Diversity. “This is a wake-up call for land managers in the West to do what’s needed to keep white-nose syndrome from spinning out of control before it’s too late.”
“This disease just made a jump of more than 1,000 miles, so it’s pretty reasonable to think this could be a human-caused transmission,” Matteson said. “What’s absolutely heartbreaking about this news is that there were obvious things wildlife and land managers could have done to stem the spread, including prohibiting nonessential cave access into public land caves. They could have passed rules requiring that no caving gear or clothing from WNS-positive states be allowed in caves in unaffected states.”
The disease was first identified in 2006 in New York and has spread to 28 states and five Canadian provinces. White-nose syndrome is named for the fuzzy white fungal growth that is sometimes observed on the muzzles of infected bats. The fungus invades hibernating bats’ skin and causes damage, especially to delicate wing tissue, and physiologic imbalances that can lead to disturbed hibernation, depleted fat reserves, dehydration and death.
Federal officials said their next step will be to conduct surveillance near where the bat was found to determine the extent of WNS in the area. The Washington Department of Fish and Wildlife (WDFW) is responsible for bat management and conservation in Washington and will coordinate surveillance and response efforts.
WDFW veterinarian Katie Haman said the disease is transmitted primarily from bat to bat, although people can carry fungal spores on their clothing, shoes or caving gear.
“The bat found near North Bend most likely had been roused from hibernation and was attempting to feed at a time of very low insect availability,” Haman said. “At this point we don’t know where the infected bat may have spent the winter, but it seems likely that it was somewhere in the central Cascades.”
Haman said Washington state has 15 species of bats that benefit humans by consuming large quantities of insects that can impact forest health and commercial crops.
WDFW advises against handling animals that appear sick or are found dead. If you find dead bats or notice bats exhibiting unusual behavior such as flying outside during the day or during freezing weather, please report your observation online at http://wdfw.wa.gov/conservation/health/wns or contact the WDFW Wildlife Health Hotline at (800) 606-8768.
To learn more about WNS and access the most updated decontamination protocols and cave access advisories, visit www.whitenosesyndrome.org.