Yesterday the US Fish and Wildlife Service announced a new estimate of the number of bats that have died due to whitenose syndrome – the mysterious fungal disease that is devastating bats in the Eastern US and Canada. Working with a group of biologists they determined that the figure is somewhere within the range of 5.5-6.7 million bats. This new number is the first significant estimation of the loss of bats since 2008 when scientists estimated around 1 million bats had likely died.
Since then, anyone reporting on whitenose syndrome has used the figure “more than a million bats” when trying to convey the magnitude of the problem, but over time – without updated information – that number was beginning to lose meaning. When you are trying to convince members of congress, for example, to prioritize and fund research for this devastating disease, being able to demonstrate that the problem of several years ago still exists is important – which is why we have been putting pressure on the Service to work with its state partners to collect this important information.
So while yesterday’s news reflects the sobering reality that whitenose syndrome is continuing to wreak havoc on our bat populations – which is likely to have consequences for the agricultural and forest pests upon which bats prey – it is also a reflection of the responsiveness of the Service to this wildlife crisis. The Service has shown great leadership on this issue and given Congress’ recent direction for the agency to commit $4 million dollars to whitenose syndrome research and management, we expect more progress in the coming year.
This is not to say that the problem of whitenose syndrome is under control. In fact, scientists have estimated that basic research needs number around $50 million, so the $4 million will only be able to accomplish so much. Plus, there is still no known treatment for protecting bats from whitenose syndrome which makes management options limited. Recently, scientists reported finding what they think might be survivors in caves in Vermont. And while this finding provides hope that some bats may be able to withstand the deadly fungus, the scale of the loss that has occurred already along with bats’ slow reproductive rate means that we won’t see a return of these bats to their historic levels within our lifetimes. Anything we can do to prevent the loss of additional bats in the future is time and money well spent.
In other words, significant progress is being made as a result of great work and collaboration between federal and state agencies, scientists, and the environmental and caving communities – aided, in part, by Congress. But, there’s still much more work to be done.