It has been two months since I last wrote an update about white-nose syndrome and the news in that short time has not been good. First, the fungus that has been wiping out bat populations along the eastern US spread north into Quebec and Ontario. Then, it was found in the Great Smoky Mountains and other caves in Tennessee followed by the first reports from Missouri. Just yesterday, there was a report of the presence of the fungus that causes white-nose syndrome in the western part of Oklahoma which, if true, would take us clearly off the map that has been tracking the disease.
The news has also not been good for particular species of bats. Missouri is home to at least 12 species of bats, including two endangered species, the gray and Indiana bats. Indiana bats are fairing poorly against white-nose syndrome. And the gray bat, which was close to being recovered from the endangered species list, is now at great risk of extinction again since 95% of all gray bats hibernate in just a few caves in Tennessee, Missouri, Arkansas, Kentucky, and Alabama.
While the scientific and bat communities have accurately predicted the path that the disease would spread, this year’s accounts have far surpassed expectations for how far and fast the spread would go. States have been responding by closing their caves to the public, but since the fungus is also, and perhaps most likely, spread from bat to bat, restricting human traffic may do little to stop the spread. All that can really be done is for scientists to continue their research as quickly as possible in an effort to determine whether there is anything that can be done to prevent the devastating die-off of bats.
That research takes money at a time when money is limited. Scientists testified to congress last year that they would need approximately $45 million dollars over the next five years to address the most pressing research needs for white-nose syndrome. Congress appropriated $1.9 million in last year’s budget specifically for efforts associated with white-nose syndrome. This year we are asking for more. Last week, NRDC and our colleagues sent a letter to the senate appropriations committee requesting additional funding for white-nose syndrome research. Given the ecological and economic importance of bats – as consumers of huge quantities of insects including crop pests – and the broad geographic distribution of this disease, white-nose syndrome is clearly a crisis of national importance.
We will continue to press for funding, research and leadership for this issue. As the path of white-nose syndrome continues to grow, so should our determination to address it.
Photo credit: USFWS