For Immediate Release, April 8, 2013
Contact: Mollie Matteson, (802) 318-1487
Deadly Disease Hits Home of America's Largest Colony of Endangered Gray Bats
Alabama's Fern Cave Also Hosts up to 1 Million Endangered Indiana Bats
DECATUR, Ala.— The devastating bat epidemic known as white-nose syndrome has reached the home of the world’s largest wintering colony of endangered gray bats and as many as a million endangered Indiana bats. U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service officials announced today that the fungal disease, which has killed nearly 7 million bats in 22 eastern states and five Canadian provinces since 2006, has been documented in Fern Cave on Wheeler National Wildlife Refuge in northern Alabama, which was created to protect gray bats. In announcing the discovery, the Service said the latest cases were “extremely alarming and could be catastrophic.”
“With this one cave containing more than a third of the world’s gray bats, all the alarm bells should be going off,” said Mollie Matteson, a bat specialist with the Center for Biological Diversity. “White-nose syndrome is now threatening the very survival of the gray bat and several other species.”
Gray bats have not yet shown symptoms of the devastating disease, but it is too soon to consider them in the clear. A number of other bat species found at Fern Cave have been devastated by the disease, including endangered Indiana bats, which have declined by more than 70 percent, and tricolored bats, which have declined by more than 95 percent and have been observed in the cave with the telltale fuzzy white muzzle characteristic of the disease.
The Center petitioned for Endangered Species Act protection for three other species that have been devastated by the disease: eastern small-footed bats, northern long-eared bats and little brown bats. All three species are expected to be protected as endangered species later this year. The Center is working on another petition for tricolored bats.
“With white-nose syndrome wiping out bats across the eastern United States, it should be all hands on deck. But tragically the response to this crisis continues to be lackluster,” said Matteson. “Look, it’s not just that bats are fascinating, as our only flying mammals — they’re also supremely important for farming, for our food security. They eat thousands of tons of insects, including crop pests, every year.”
Researchers have estimated the economic value of bug-eating bats to American agriculture at $22 billion and possibly as much as $53 billion annually. Yet federal funding for white-nose syndrome research and disease response coordination has been scarce the past several years and is likely to become even scarcer in the 2013 and 2014 federal budgets. Far too little is being done to stop the spread of the disease.
In 2010 the Center petitioned federal land managers to enact cave closures to protect bats across the country, particularly in areas the disease has not yet reached, like the western United States. The disease is spread by bats, but humans are the most likely cause of spread beyond the typical dispersal distance of bats. In fact the fungal pathogen that causes white-nose was most likely introduced to the United States by a cave visitor from Europe, where the fungus is found on bats but doesn’t seem to hurt them. Federal land managers have closed caves only in limited areas, such as national parks. Despite the continued westward spread of the disease, Region 2 of the Forest Service, which had enacted some of the strongest cave closures, announced last week it would reopen many caves in Colorado, Wyoming and South Dakota to recreational access.
“We need to do more to stop this terrible disease that is killing so many of our bats,” said Matteson. “We need to find a cure, but until we do, we need to stay out of caves.”
With protection under the Endangered Species Act, gray bats were on the road to recovery thanks to efforts to protect their caves, including the establishment of several national wildlife refuges like Wheeler. The species was considered ready for downlisting from endangered to threatened as recently as 2002, but with the appearance of white-nose syndrome downlisting has been shelved. Gray bats are North America’s largest myotis bat and one of the few that lives in caves year round.
The Center for Biological Diversity is a national, nonprofit conservation organization with more than 500,000 members and online activists dedicated to the protection of endangered species and wild places.