Bats are not the most beloved of animals, so a wildlife disease that is devastating bat populations across the eastern United States may not generate much sympathy among many people. But, said DailyFinance, an AOL news site, “like good health, you’ll realize that you miss them after they’re gone.”
The disappearance of so many bats – more than a million so far – because of White-nose Syndrome “could bring profound and long-term changes not only to the environment but also to agriculture, landscaping and gardening across North America,” DailyFinance reports.
Since 2006, WNS has been spreading rapidly out from a single cave near Albany, New York, hammering the hibernating bat populations in its path. The disease – or the fungus associated with it – is now in 14 U.S. states and two Canadian provinces. Six bat species have been attacked by WNS, while the fungus has been reported on three others. Mortality rates at affected bat colonies have been horrific.
"The disease is absolutely devastating. It’s unprecedented," Mylea Bayless, Bat Conservation International’s WNS Response Coordinator, told DailyFinance. "It's causing population declines in wildlife that we haven't seen since the passenger pigeon."
Because of bats’ slow reproductive rates, she said, bat populations are going to be very slow to recover, "if they ever do recover. White-nose Syndrome is moving at a pace that's astonishing, about 450 miles per year. In four short years, it's now closer to the Pacific Ocean than it is to its point of origination in Albany, New York."
Biologist Rick Adams of the University of Northern Colorado worries that bats are facing “a mass extinction event, a thousand times higher than anything we've seen. It's going through [bat colonies] like wildfire, with 80 to 100 percent mortality," DailyFinance reports.
Both biologists warned of a high cost for losing these bats animals. Bats, the website notes, are primary predators of night-flying insects, including such major crop-destroying pests as corn earworm moths. It cites a 2006 study of several south-central Texas counties, which found that local bats had an annual pest-control value of some $740,000 – up to 29 percent of the value of the local cotton crop.
DailyFinance quotes Adams as saying one colony of Mexican free-tailed bats in Colorado's San Luis Valley, an important agricultural region, "pulls about 100 metric tons of insects out of the air in a year."
The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service recently awarded $1.6 million in grants for WNS research and control, DailyFinance said. "For some people, that may seem like money that’s not well-spent,” Bayless said, “but [what are] the economic and ecological consequences of losing an entire species? A little bit of money spent now will save us in the long term."