White Nose Disease in Bats
Vol. 14 Issue 3, Fall 2009
By Leslie Sturges
Adapted from Bat World News, Spring 2009
Very soon bats in the northeast and mid-Atlantic regions will be making their way to winter hibernacula. Once there, they will swarm at mine and cave mouths in an ancient dance. This is where cave-dependant bats meet, greet, mate, and show the year’s young where to spend the winter. Unfortunately, due to the spread of White-Nose Syndrome (WNS), their days are numbered and so are those of their offspring.
In just three short years there has been almost total annihilation of hibernating bat populations in affected caves in NY and VT. Already mortality is estimated at somewhere around 1.5 million dead bats. There is no reason to think that more recently affected cave populations in Pennsylvania, West Virginia and Virginia will fare any better. In fact, if WNS continues its southward spread, it will be in the complex cave systems used by gray bats, which were only recently being considered for removal from the endangered species list. If WNS moves westward, it will affect the largest populations of endangered Indiana bats. Given the current rate of spread, the situation is dire indeed.
It also appears that despite several years of research, we are no nearer a cure or preventative measure, despite the identification of the fungus (Geomyces destructans) that gives WNS its signature appearance. We believe part of the problem stems from an unwillingness to treat WNS as a medical condition. Until this spring, WNS has been managed as a biological issue affecting populations, when in fact, the condition acts very much like a disease, and diseases affect individuals within a population.
Regardless of the underlying cause of the condition, we believe there needs to be more effort put toward treating the fungal organism. Unfortunately, the state and federal agencies tasked with managing WNS have not been given the resources a situation of this magnitude deserves. It is not at all fair to put the burden of solving this crisis on the backs of underfunded field biologists and university programs. In fact, Congress recently allocated a measly $500,000 for continued monitoring. In this writer’s opinion, spending money merely to watch a crises unfold is a waste.
However, there are glimmers of hope on the horizon. Bat World New Jersey director Jackie Kashmer has been given a green light by her state wildlife agency and the US Fish and Wildlife Service to start controlled studies for WNS treatments. This rare opportunity is based on the hard work Jackie did on the WNS-affected bats that came in to her Bat World Rescue Center. This is a huge development and possibly a first in allowing rehabilitators to take the lead in medical management of a wildlife disease. In addition, Bat World NOVA had the privilege of writing the rehabilitator’s response protocol for USFWS, which is currently under review and should be officially adopted soon.
In addition, Bat World Sanctuary has had the good fortune to become connected to other small grassroots organizations that have taken on the tremendous burden of agitating for more attention from Congress and advising us as to how to proceed to raise awareness of this devastating issue. There are now several collaborative efforts to raise awareness underway. Please check the website for updates and action alerts, and look to local environmental organizations like the Loudoun Wildlife Conservancy for assistance with letter writing and information distribution.
We believe that if there were over a million dead bunnies or ponies on the landscape, a great deal more political pressure would have been brought to bear on the issue. But we are talking about bats, not ponies, and neither the media nor the agencies know how to capture the empathy factor for bats. But advocacy groups do, as well as local, grassroots organizations. It will take a concerted effort on the part of concerned citizens to get WNS the attention it deserves.
These devastated bat populations need your help more than ever. You can contribute by taking action:
- Thoroughly educate yourselves on this devastating condition by visiting the excellent informational websites provided by USFWS, USGS, NSS, BCI, or Bat Conservation and Management, Inc.
- Contact your state’s congressional representatives to let them know you care about bats and you want increased funding and attention put toward WNS research. Feel free to use the BWS statement on our website.
- Contact your local media outlets to let them know that you don’t think bats are creepy or scary and that you want to know why bats are portrayed so negatively in news reports. Ask them to cover WNS from a more sympathetic stance. Tell them you know of an organization that rescues bats and that many people think bats are beautiful and important.
- Contact WNS researchers and ask why there haven’t been any published medical management efforts, such as following affected bats over time in captivity to chart the progression of the condition, or working with captive bats to see how to keep them healthy during hibernation.
Locate, monitor, and safeguard local bat maternity colonies if you live in an affected area. This is a crucial next step and one that is sorely overdue. So far, WNS has only been identified in a handful of caves in western Virginia; however, no one knows where those bats spend the summer.
It will be critical to watch for declines in returning populations, declines in the number of pups born, and unusually large numbers of dead or dying pups. If you know of maternity colonies of little brown bats or eastern pipistrelles, please report your findings to Bat World NOVA firstname.lastname@example.org or Virginia’s Department of Game and Inland Fisheries at http://www.dgif.virginia.gov/wildlife/bats/white-nose-syndrome/