February is a terrible month to care about bats. It’s when the peaceful silence of winter hibernation is broken by emerging reports of white-nose syndrome being found in new locations. So far this month white-nose syndrome – the disease caused by a deadly fungus that has led to widespread bat die-offs – has been reported in both Indiana and North Carolina expanding the number of states reporting the disease from 14 to 16 – continuing its steady path across the country.
The challenges that make white-nose syndrome so difficult to address are the same as those that affect many emergent wildlife diseases: lack of rapid response, lack of funding for research and management, and a lack of coordination within and among agencies and other interested parties. In the five years since white-nose syndrome was first detected, for example, little money has been available for its research, and federal and state agencies have struggled to develop even draft outlines of management plans for the disease. Today, Senator Lautenberg – one of only a few congressional champions for white-nose syndrome – is introducing legislation that could help remedy these issues not only for white-nose syndrome, but for any disease that poses this extreme of a threat to wildlife.
The Wildlife Disease Emergency Act of 2011 is designed to create the framework and resources necessary to respond rapidly and effectively to wildlife disease outbreaks. It would establish a fund so that resources would immediately be available for research, monitoring, management, etc. It would also allow for the Secretary of the Interior to establish a wildlife disease committee comprised of experts from federal and state agencies as well as public and private organizations. The committee would advise the Secretary on the best response to the disease outbreak and would help facilitate coordination among the various agencies and institutions involved in both the research and management of the disease.
Getting money for white-nose syndrome continues to be a challenge and if this legislation were to pass, funding the Wildlife Disease Emergency fund could be similarly challenging. The incentive though is higher for any state that has ever experienced a wildlife disease emergency or would like to be able to efficiently address one in the future. In short, this legislation would be beneficial not just for the 16 states currently affected by white-nose syndrome, but for every state in the country. As spring unfolds bringing numerous more accounts of white-nose syndrome in new locations, we hope that more representatives will see the wisdom in not only passing this kind of legislation, but in funding it.
Photo credit: Nancy Heaslip, New York Department of Environmental Conservation courtesy of US Fish and Wildlife Service