For Immediate Release, September 23, 2009
Contact: Mollie Matteson, Center for Biological Diversity, (802) 434-2388 (office), (802) 318-1487 (cell)
Government Announces Plan to Respond to White-nose Syndrome, Try to Stave Off Bat Catastrophe
RICHMOND, Vt.— In response to calls from the Center for Biological Diversity, dozens of other conservation organizations, scientists, and members of Congress, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service has drafted a plan to respond to white-nose syndrome, a disease that has been killing millions of bats in the eastern United States over the past three winters. Earlier this month, the Center for Biological Diversity sent a letter to the agency’s director, pleading for faster, more coordinated action on the die-off, which scientists believe could cause the extinction of several bat species within a few years.
White-nose syndrome has wiped out an estimated 1.5 million bats and reduced populations of bats in some areas by 90 to 100 percent. It has rapidly spread from the Albany, New York area, where it first appeared in caves in the winter of 2006-07, to a total of nine states from New Hampshire to West Virginia. It is expected to show up in bat caves this winter in Kentucky, Tennessee, and other midwestern and southern states, and biologists think it may reach the West Coast within two to three years.
“White-nose syndrome is like a house on fire,” said Mollie Matteson, a wildlife biologist and conservation advocate in the Center for Biological Diversity’s Northeast office. “People have been throwing buckets of water on it, and calling 911, but it’s taken a long time for the fire trucks to get there. We’re grateful, but we hope it’s not too late.”
The Fish and Wildlife Service’s recently released plan, available on its white-nose syndrome web page, is only a draft framework at this point. Agency officials said last week that they hope to finalize the plan by late fall, before white-nose syndrome starts showing up in new bat sites this winter.
One of the purposes of the plan is to provide state wildlife agencies with guidance on how to respond to white-nose syndrome, if it should appear in their state. Research, containment, and monitoring for the disease, along with measures for recovery of stricken bat species, will be addressed in the final plan, according to the current outline.
The Center and other groups have been calling for more coordinated action on white-nose syndrome for months. In April, the Center, along with Defenders of Wildlife, sent a letter to Interior Secretary Ken Salazar asking for the appointment of a full-time white-nose syndrome coordinator, the development of a plan, and increased funding. In May, the Center was joined by 60 other groups and scientists in a letter to Congress, which drew attention to the bat crisis and called for urgent action.
The response to the swiftly spreading bat illness has been hampered by lack of resources and coordination among the growing number of state and federal agencies, research institutions, cave owners and managers, and others pulled into the crisis. Common myths and prejudices about bats have also posed a challenge for those advocating for faster action. But bats provide vital services to humans by eating enormous quantities of insects, and keeping potentially troublesome insect pests in check. In some parts of the country, bats play an important role in pollination.
This spring and summer, concerned members of Congress did host three hearings on the syndrome, but the House did not approve any additional funding for it, and the Senate appropriated only $500,000 for monitoring. Biologists outside the Fish and Wildlife Service have stated that a minimum of $5 million was needed just to address the current extent of the crisis, and more would be needed as the illness spread.
Said Matteson: “Getting a plan written is an enormous step forward. Next it has to be implemented, and it needs money. Otherwise, it’ll just be a way to pass time as the bats disappear.”
The Center for Biological Diversity is a national, nonprofit conservation organization with more than 225,000 members and online activists dedicated to the protection of endangered species and wild places.