This year’s flood of tragic news about White-nose Syndrome became a deluge in May. The WNS fungus was confirmed on another endangered species, the gray bat – putting its impressive recovery at grave risk. The fungus also leaped into Oklahoma and the cave myotis, potentially opening the American West and possibly Mexico to this devastating disease.
Meanwhile, Bat Conservation International Executive Director Nina Fascione submitted written testimony to the U.S. Senate Interior Appropriations subcommittee last week urging Congress to commit an additional $5 million for research and management of WNS in 2011. The request was endorsed by nearly 60 other organizations, including the Center for Biological Diversity, Natural Resources Defense Council, Defenders of Wildlife and the National Speleological Society.
WNS has swept across the eastern United States, killing more than a million hibernating bats of six species since it was discovered in a New York cave in February 2006. Mortality rates approaching 100 percent are reported at some sites, and the disease still defies desperate research efforts to find a cure or at least a way to slow its spread.
Endangered Indiana bats already are being battered by WNS. Earlier in spring, the disease or the associated fungus spread into Tennessee, Maryland and Missouri, and northward into Ontario and Quebec, Canada. Gray bats with the fungus (Geomyces destructans) were confirmed in Missouri.
“The news that gray bats are now infected with the White-nose Syndrome fungus is especially tragic for BCI,” Fascione said, “because our organization has worked to hard over so many years for the recovery of this important species. We must find a way to stop this disease before extinctions become inevitable.”
BCI has been a key player in the gray bat’s recovery since the organization’s founding in 1982. The species, its population collapsing, was listed as endangered in 1976. BCI identified the critical threats as disturbances and loss of critical gray bat caves, and many were subsequently protected. The total gray bat population grew some 40 percent from 1982, reaching an estimated 2.5 million in 2005, and the species was being considered for graduation off the endangered species list. That recovery is now imperiled.
The arrival of the WNS fungus in cave myotis in Oklahoma “may open a gateway to the West. It certainly puts all the western states on high alert,” said Mylea Bayless, WNS Emergency Response Coordinator for BCI. “This may expose a whole new community of bat species to White-nose Syndrome.”
The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service and the Oklahoma Department of Wildlife Conservation said in a news release that the fungus found on the cave myotis in Oklahoma was confirmed as Geomyces destructans.
Cave myotis, the first uniquely western species to face the fungus, will likely spread it to other western bats. But an even greater risk involves cave myotis’ tendency to share caves with migratory Mexican free-tailed bats, one of the most widely dispersed and far-ranging species of bats in the American West and South.
Huge colonies of freetails typically spend their summers in the United States, where they are found from coast to coast, then migrate south for the winter. Their migration routes can cover 1,000 miles or more and reach deep into Mexico.
WNS so far has killed only hibernating bats, which include 25 of the 46 U.S. bat species. Cave myotis hibernate through the winter and are probably susceptible to WNS. Mexican free-tailed bats, however, remain active year-round.
WNS’ potential impact on Mexican freetails is unknown, but these bats share their winter and summer ranges with many hibernating species. Biologists fear that migrating freetails, even if they are not themselves battered by the disease, may prove to be carriers that spread the White-nose fungus.
Scientists and wildlife managers have feared for years now that White-nose Syndrome, if unstopped, could decimate bat populations throughout North America. That threat is now greater and more imminent than ever.
Even if Congress acts on Nina Fascione’s request for more WNS-research funding, that money will take time to reach the scientists who need it. You can help BCI support the research and mitigation efforts that are so critical if we are to defeat White-nose Syndrome. Please donate today to this and other bat-conservation efforts at www.batcon.org/donate.