Congress allots millions to combat bat disease

By Troy Hooper
Real AspenDecember 23, 2011

Congress allotted $4 million on Friday to study and combat the outbreak of white-nose syndrome — a mysterious and menacing disease that is killing off North American bats by the millions.

White-nose syndrome was first linked to a bat cave near Albany, New York, in 2006 and it has since spread to 16 states and four Canadian provinces, and the fungus that causes the disease has been found on asymptomatic bats in another three states. The little brown bat, as well as the northern long-eared bat and the eastern small-footed bat, are all potential candidates for federal endangered species listings, and the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service is currently reviewing their bleak outlook.

Bats swoop out of an old iron ore mine to feast on insects in southern Colorado.
Colorado Parks and Wildlife

Other species of North American bats are endangered as a result of human habitat disturbance. Bats, which eat enough insects to save the U.S. agricultural industry between $3 billion and $53 billion a year, are also flying up against industrial-scale wind turbines that crush their thumb-sized bodies.

Interior Secretary Ken Salazar will be directed to earmark the money from the 2012 endangered species recovery fund to research and manage the deadly outbreak of white-nose syndrome.

“We’re grateful that there is an appropriation to fight white-nose syndrome and save bats, although much more than $4 million is needed to truly combat this unprecedented wildlife crisis," said Mollie Matteson, conservation advocate at the Center for Biological Diversity.

Concern for North America's bats is growing as the fungal disease that breeds in the nocturnal animals' faces and wings continues to spread.

"The high number of bat deaths and range of species being affected far exceeds the rate and magnitude of any previously known natural or human-caused mortality event in bats, and possibly in any other mammals,” said Paul Cryan, a U.S. Geological Survey research scientist in Fort Collins and one of the authors of an analysis published in the journal Science last spring about bats' economic contribution to the farming industry.

"It is obviously beneficial that insectivorous bats are patrolling the skies at night above our fields and forests. These bats deserve help," Cryan said.

Scientists warn of more economic losses in the ag industry because of "the double-whammy effect" of bat deaths caused by white-nose syndrome and from wind turbines and other human encroachment.

"Because the agricultural value of bats in the Northeast is small compared with other parts of the country, such losses could be even more substantial in the extensive agricultural regions in the Midwest and the Great Plains, where wind-energy development is booming and the fungus responsible for white-nose syndrome was recently detected,” said Thomas Kunz, a distinguished biology professor at Boston University who studies bat behavior and ecology.

There are 18 species of bats in Colorado and at least two other types found in nearby parts of Utah and Oklahoma that may be here too. White-nose syndrome is not known to have reached Colorado.

The National Park Service has closed caves in the Pocono Mountains in the eastern United States and, out west, federal and state agencies partially closed some caves and abandoned mines on public lands in New Mexico in response to the spread of white-nose syndrome. Others, such as Carlsbad Caverns National Park and Mammoth Cave National Park, are enacting processes to screen visitors to prevent the transmission of the fungus that can develop into white-nose syndrome.

Colorado Parks and Wildlife is asking the public to report the sighting of any active or dead bats this winter. Last year, the agency, along with Orient Land Trust, established a 350-acre conservation easement including a defunct iron ore mine to protect 250,000 Mexican free-tailed bats.

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