RICHMOND, Vt.— The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service has announced that it is providing $1.6 million for several new studies of the disease known as white-nose syndrome that has decimated bat populations in the eastern United States over the past four years. While the funding is an important step, the federal government must do still more to address what has been called the worst wildlife decline in North American history.
“The government’s response so far is vastly outsized by the magnitude of the white-nose syndrome crisis. We must dramatically scale up our efforts to stem the spread of this disease or risk widespread catastrophe for bat populations around the country,” said Mollie Matteson, conservation advocate for the Center for Biological Diversity, a group advocating for protection of bats. “Although this disease has killed millions of bats, the Fish and Wildlife Service still lacks a national plan to address the disease, has not declared new protections for plummeting bat species, and continues to request inadequate funding to tackle this huge ecological threat.”
Biologists fear the bat disease — associated with a fungus previously unknown to science — will show up this winter in the upper Midwest, Alabama and other areas of the South, and parts of the western United States. Last winter, white-nose syndrome jumped across the Mississippi River into caves in Missouri and western Oklahoma. So far, nine bat species have been documented with the fungus, two of which were already listed as endangered before the onset of the disease.
Early this year, the Center filed a petition to close all federally owned bat caves in the lower 48 states to protect bats from the possible human-caused spread of the white-nose fungus. Since then, the U.S. Forest Service has declared all bat caves in its Rocky Mountain Region (Kansas, Nebraska, Colorado and most of Wyoming and South Dakota) off-limits to recreational use; the Bureau of Land Management advised its state directors to take precautionary measures against the disease, including targeted cave closures; and the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service administratively closed all bat caves and mines within the national wildlife refuge system. Last year, the Forest Service closed bat caves to recreational use in eastern and southern national forests.
The Fish and Wildlife Service has yet to act on a Center petition, filed last January, to list two white-nose-affected bat species under the federal Endangered Species Act, despite clear evidence that bat numbers have declined dramatically in the East, where white-nose syndrome has been present the longest. However, the state of Wisconsin recently made a proactive, emergency listing of four of its resident bat species under its own endangered species law, in advance of the appearance of the bat disease in the state. Other states have closed all state-owned bat caves or developed their own response plans, but many have done very little to prepare or have minimal resources with which to respond.
“The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service’s leadership on this issue has been lackluster at best,” said Matteson. “We need scientists to figure out why bats are dying, and we need people to stay out of bat caves. The Fish and Wildlife Service can make sure both of these things happen.”
White-nose syndrome is associated with a newly identified fungal species that grows on bats’ noses and wings and causes them to die of starvation during the winter. From its epicenter near Albany, N.Y., white-nose syndrome has rapidly spread to touch bat populations in 14 states, from New Hampshire to Oklahoma, as well as the Canadian provinces of Quebec and Ontario. Scientists have predicted white-nose syndrome could reach the West Coast within a few years, and may cause several bat species to go extinct.
The new studies on the bat disease will be particularly focused on the means of disease transmission, which scientists suspected from early on has been caused by people as well as by bats.
“It’s vital that white-nose syndrome research focuses on the crucial question of how this disease is carried from one place to another,” said Matteson. “But until scientists can give us a more definitive understanding, entirely avoiding caves for all but essential purposes is the best policy. We can’t do much about bats’ natural dispersal, but we can keep people from spreading the disease to new areas and avoid the devastating consequences for resident bats.”