Dollars and bats - why caring about white-nose syndrome makes economic sense

The post-hibernation discovery of new cases of white-nose syndrome – the disease that has been devastating US bats – continues with recent reports coming from a new county in Maryland and a first-ever report from Ohio in just the past week.  While the news is tragic for those of us who care about bats and wildlife, others may question: what is so bad about losing some bats?  After all, bats often get a bad rap being associated with vampires and rabies, for example.  For some, losing bats may seem like 'good riddance'.

Biologists in today’s Science journal explain, however, why each and every one of us should care about this unprecedented die-off of bats.  In their paper titled, “Economic Importance of Bats in Agriculture,” the scientists estimate that the loss of bats in the US could lead to agricultural losses of at least $3.7 billion and up to $53 billion a year

You see, a single colony of 150 big brown bats in Indiana eats nearly 1.3 million pest insects each year.  One little brown bat can consume 4 to 8 grams of insects each night meaning that the estimated loss of one million bats due to white-nose syndrome translates into 660 to 1320 metric tons of insects that are no longer being consumed by bats in affected areas.  Finally, the pest suppression services provided by bats in Texas translated into an average of $74 per acre in a cotton-dominated agricultural landscape. 

This estimate takes into account the reduced costs of pesticide application given the presence of bats that consume insects, but does not account for the “downstream” impacts of pesticides which will be even greater with the loss of bats.  That is, with a continued loss of bats in the US we are likely to see an increase in crop prices due to the combination of an increase in crop damage and pesticide use – not to mention the impacts of increased pesticide use to our soils, water and surrounding natural ecosystems. 

Given this scenario, those who view bats as pests themselves have a reason to think twice. Bats clearly play an important role both economically and ecologically in ways that benefit us all. 

The scientists end by arguing that action is needed now to address the widespread die-off of bats and that includes the need for important new research to develop “proactive solutions for understanding and ameliorating the effects of white-nose syndrome.”  This will mean investing in research that could help us avoid the devastating economic losses laid out in this paper.  While securing funding for white-nose syndrome has been a challenge, this research makes the argument that a dollar today could well mean money-back in the future.

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