Bats are often feared and even more often misunderstood. Bats in the United States, however, are under attack but not from the most likely sources but from a fungal disease. Soon people on the East Coast may not even have to fear bats at all as they may not even exist there in two decades.
While bats are often seen as pests, they actually play a pivotal role in the ecosystems where they reside. There are approximately 1,000 bat species, which is nearly a quarter of all mammalian species discovered to this point. Bats play major roles in insect control and as pollinators, roles which are often forgotten but result in significant savings for farmers. However, it may become glaringly obvious if bat species population numbers plummet.
The fungal pathogen is called Geomyces destructans and is being found naturally in the environment. The fungus prefers damp, dark locales, just like bats. The fungus has been traced to Europe and entered the United State either from something as simple as someone’s shoe or from an accidentally shipped bat. The fungus causes symptoms such as a white-nose, which is why the fungal infections have been called white-nose syndrome.
Bats with white-nose syndrome have a tell-tale white nose, and sometimes white patches on their wins, ears or tails. Bats experience weight loss from the infection and have been known to develop odd behaviors, such as flying during the day. Now new estimates about the decimation from the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service have been released, estimating that at least 5.7 million bats have died from the fungal infection. This is spread over nineteen states and four Canadian provinces, all located in eastern North America. A decrease in bat populations in the northeastern portion of the U.S. is thought to be at least eighty percent.
While the fungus is not harmful to humans, it has been shown to infect multiple kinds of bats, including little brown, big brown, northern long-eared and Indiana bats. Scientists have found that upwards of ninety-nine percent of bats which become infected die. The estimates for the number of bats thus far killed, 5.7 million, are thought to be conservative and likely higher.
Scientists fear that the disease could wipe out all bats in eastern North America within twenty years. Scientists have yet to determine how to stop the spread of the fungus or to help bats become resistant. However, while scientists continue to search for a cure, other actions are being thought necessary to protect further drastic bat population decreases. One such move is restricting access to or closing caves altogether in the Northern Rockies region of the U.S..
The U.S. Forest Service announced that they are likely going to close caves in the region as soon as June in order to stop the spread of the disease. No bats in the Northern Rockies region, including Montana, Idaho, and North and South Dakota, have been found to have the disease at this time. A major concern is that those accessing the caves will bring the fungus in on their shoes or clothing and spread it to the bats in residence.
Cavers are disturbed by the expected closings but there may be limited access built into the plan by the U.S. Forest Service. Permits may be included in the closures for access, however, anyone entering the caves would have to undergo decontamination. Environmental groups agree with the closings and have pushed for them in the past. It is unknown how well cave closures will do to reduce the spread of the disease, however, officials are limited in what they can do at this time to save bat populations.