Death toll tops 5.7 million bats
White-nose syndrome, a ruthless killer, has already been wiping out bat populations across the east coast.
Now it is moving west.
Caused by a cold-loving fungus, Geomyces destructans, white-nose syndrome is striking cave dwelling bats during their winter hibernation. While evidence of the fungus had previously been detected across many eastern states, in the past two months the disease has been confirmed in bats in Missouri, Delaware, and Alabama as well as in Acadia National Park in Maine and Great Smoky Mountains National Park in Tennessee. This brings the total number of states with confirmed disease infections to nineteen.
Research findings published Monday confirmed that the fungus was introduced to North America from Europe. However there is no evidence of this disease impacting European bat populations as it has here.
Since it was first detected in New York in 2006, white-nose syndrome has not only threatened the survival of our bat populations, it is also likely to lead to increases in mosquitoes, beetles and moths that are otherwise normally consumed by bats. It is estimated that this increase in insects will cost farmers an additional $3.7 to $53 billion a year in pesticide use.
Just this January, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service updated the death toll to an estimated 5.7 to 6.7 million bats--a number equivalent to the human populations of Los Angeles and. and Chicago combined! Compared to the one million dead, that was quoted up through the end of last year, this new estimate brings home the widespread impact this disease is having on U.S. bat populations.
However, new legislation (S. 357), introduced by Senator Lautenberg (NJ) this February, has the potential to help stem the flow of infection. The Wildlife Disease Emergency Act would enable the Secretary of the Interior to declare a wildlife disease emergency and would improve our government’s ability to coordinate rapid response to disease outbreaks like we’re experiencing with white-nose syndrome. Key to this legislation would be the formation of an interagency Wildlife Disease Committee to assist the Secretary and creation of a Wildlife Disease Emergency Fund to provide the financial resources needed for immediate response.
The war against white-nose syndrome has only just begun, but to have any hope for success we’ll need as many reinforcements as we can get. The Wildlife Disease Emergency Act has been referred to the Senate Subcommittee on Water and Wildlife and should be up for hearing soon. IFAW has signed on to a coalition letter supporting this legislation and sent letters to Senators Benjamin Cardin (D-MD) and Jeff Sessions (R-AL), Chairman and Ranking Member of this subcommittee, asking for their support.
Forward-thinking legislation and partnerships between federal and state agencies coupled with the best available science is our best hope for these bats. By combining these tools we can stop this killer.