Louisville Courier-Journal, April 13, 2011
Fatal bat disease confirmed in Kentucky
By James Bruggers
Two months after a devastating bat disease was confirmed in Indiana, wildlife officials announced Wednesday that it has been detected in Kentucky — and will affect operations at the state’s most famous bat habitat, Mammoth Cave.
Having found the presence of white-nose syndrome in a little brown bat in Trigg County, in southwest Kentucky, wildlife officials said they euthanized it and some 60 other little brown bats and tri-colored bats that were in the same cave and suspected of having the disease.
Biologists checked other caves within 16 miles and found no other evidence of the disease. But authorities found little comfort in that, as they anticipated the likely spread of the disease and its devastating effects, which include an impact on the agriculture industry.
“This is likely the most significant disease threat to wildlife Kentucky has ever seen,” said state wildlife resources Commissioner Jonathan Gassett, in a written statement. “We plan to aggressively manage this threat of (white nose syndrome) as it occurs in Kentucky in order to protect and conserve our bat populations.”
Insect-eating bats provide natural pest-control services that save the American agriculture industry between $3.7 billion and $53 billion a year, according to a recently published study in the journal Science.
“If we have high rates of mortality, assuming white nose continues to spread, then you are looking at large scale loss of the primary night time predator of flying insects,” said Mike Armstrong, the white-nose southeast regional coordinator for the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service. “That translates into all kinds of different things (such as) more mosquitoes, more moths, and more pesticide use for agriculture,” he said.
White-nose syndrome is known to be transmitted primarily from bat to bat, but fungal spores may be inadvertently carried to caves by humans on clothing and caving gear.
Because of that, Indiana, Kentucky and federal agencies had already taken measures to limit potential movement of the disease, including increased education on decontamination procedures, surveillance, monitoring, and cave and old mine shaft closures on state and federal lands, as well as requests for private owners to voluntarily close caves if bats hibernate in them.
Indiana has closed roughly 300 caves in
last two years to public access, and officials
at Kentucky’s Mammoth Cave said
Wednesday that starting immediately, all
Mammoth Cave visitors will be subject to
an additional precaution — walking over
mats treated with a disinfectant.
“Mammoth Cave will continue to offer cave
tours, but visitors will now be required to
walk through bio-mats as they exit their
tour,” said Vickie Carson, Mammoth Cave
The park has more than 400 caves, and
access to all is tightly regulated. All bat
roosts are located at least 10 miles from
any areas where visitors are led on guided
tours, according to the park’s white-nose
Authorities also are warning that the public
may start to see dead or dying bats,
especially next winter if the disease spreads and sick bats come out their
winter hibernation early, as they have in
“We do not want the public handling bats,”
said Sunni Carr, director of the Kentucky
agency’s wildlife diversity program, adding
that people should call wildlife authorities
or report dead bats using a form on the
Kentucky Department of Fish and Wildlife
While white-nose syndrome cannot be
transmitted to people, bats, like other
wildlife, can carry other diseases that can
White-nose syndrome was first detected in
New York state in 2006 and has killed
more than a million cave dwelling bats in
eastern North America, according to the
fish and wildlife service. Mortality rates of
bats have reached almost 100 percent in
caves that have been affected over more
than one year, officials said. With
confirmation of the disease in Kentucky, 16
states and three Canadian provinces are now certain to have infected bats, officials
Indiana officials weren’t surprised by
Wednesday’s announcement that the
disease had been detected in Kentucky.
“We’re all in the same boat,” said Scott
Johnson, an Indiana Department of Natural
Since the discovery of the disease this
winter in Indiana, the state Department of
Natural Resources has confirmed two other
locations — in Crawford County near
Leavenworth and west of Bloomington, said
Scott Johnson, a DNR non-game biologist.
To prevent further stress on the bat
population, Hoosier officials cut in half the
numbers of caves where biologists entered
in late January to conduct a two-year bat
census. They’ve also begun using digital
photographs rather than measuring
clusters of hibernating bats clinging to rock
ceilings in caves and ultrasound to detect
“atypical” behavior, such as bats flying out
of caves in daylight during winter, Johnson
At Mammoth Cave, Carson said the U.S.
National Park Service will continue its
practice of asking all cave tour participants
if they had been in other caves, and if so,
to disinfect their shoes before going on a
tour, she said.
More than 400,000 people each year visit
Mammoth Cave, the longest cave in the
world, Carson said.
The discovery of the infected bat in Trigg
County came during extensive winter
surveillance by state and federal officials in
Almost 100 caves used for hibernating
bats were checked in Kentucky this winter,
said Brooke Slack, a state bat ecologist.
The infected bat was found April 1 in a
privately owned cave. It was collected and
sent to a federal wildlife lab, where the
disease was confirmed on April 7, said
Kentucky alone has millions of bats, and
biologists say they play a vital role, and
worry that their loss could have devastating
impacts on the environment and the
Besides the loss of pest control, bats are
also important plant pollinators, biologists
And Ann Froschauer, a fish and wildlife
spokeswoman, said bat droppings are the most important sources of nutrients in cave
habitats, so losing bats could after other
cave dwelling plants and animals. Both
Kentucky and Indiana have numerous
Officials said efforts to slow the spread of
the disease may have helped delay its
arrival to Kentucky.
In 2009, the fish and wildlife service
termed the disease “a wildlife crisis of
unprecedented proportions” and first
asked everyone to stay out of caves in
affected and neighboring states, including
But closing caves known to contain
hibernating bats has been controversial,
caving enthusiasts acknowledged.
“I think they had to do something,” said
Reece Walter, president of The Blue Grass
Grotto, a caving group with members from
Lexington and Bluegrass region. “I think it
was awfully dramatic, but I don’t know
what better options they had.
“As a caver, we enjoy going caving, and it
has shut off a lot of places we like to use.”
Cavers he knows have been good about
decontaminating their equipment after
visiting caves, to prevent any potential
spread of the disease, he said.
But he also said that not everyone agrees
with the a government assertion that cavers
may be helping to spread the disease.
Jeremy Coleman, the fish and wildlife
service’s national white-nose coordinator,
said a lot of research is under way to
determine the particulars of how the
disease is spread and what more can be
done to prevent it.
A national environmental group has been
pressing the agency to spend more money
on research and move more aggressively to
close caves throughout the nation — not
just in the eastern United States.
“It’s disturbing to see how fast this disease
is moving across the country and how slow
the government has been to respond,” said
Noah Greenwald, endangered species
director at the Center for Biological
Diversity. “If we don’t slow its spread, this
disease has the potential to kill millions of
bats across the United States and drive
some bat species extinct.”
Reporter James Bruggers can be reached
at (502) 582-4645. Reporter Grace
Schneider contributed to this story.
Copyright © 2011 www.courier-journal.com.