For Immediate Release, July 29, 2013
Contact: Mollie Matteson, (802) 318-1487
Bat-killing Fungus Discovered in Arkansas
Deadly Fungus That Has Killed Millions of Bats Continues to Spread West
WEST FORK, Ark.— State wildlife officials announced today that the fungus that has already killed nearly 7 million bats in the eastern United States and Canada over the past seven years has been found in Arkansas.
Researchers studying the spread of white-nose syndrome swabbed the fungus off cave walls and bats in two northern Arkansas caves during the past two winters. Earlier lab testing was not sensitive enough to confirm the presence of the deadly fungal disease, which affects hibernating bats, but recently improved methods are now able to detect the fungus at lower levels. There are no reports yet of bats sick or dead from white-nose syndrome in Arkansas, meaning the disease has not been detected but the fungus has.
“This is just the latest piece of clear evidence that the white-nose fungus is continuing to spread west,” said Mollie Matteson, a bat specialist with the Center for Biological Diversity. “What’s troubling is that even though scientists are now able to find the fungus sooner, land managers in the western part of the country have still not widely adopted preemptive disease-containment measures. When it comes to the survival of America’s bats, they’re playing a dangerous game of Russian roulette.”
Land-management officials have closed caves in much of the eastern and southern United States, and in a few locations in the West, to help slow the spread of the disease. However, thousands of caves on western public lands remain open to recreational use. There is no known cure for white-nose syndrome, which has afflicted seven bat species so far and pushed several of them to the brink of regional extinction. Many leading bat biologists have emphasized precautionary measures, such as closures and site-specific caving gear requirements, as the best management response.
The bat disease fungus was found on a cave wall and several bats at a private cave in Arkansas in February 2012, and at Devil’s Den State Park this past winter. The swabs from February 2012 were not confirmed positive until more sensitive testing was done on them this year.
The state of Arkansas closed most of its state-owned caves to human access in 2009 and 2010. The U.S. Forest Service closed caves on Arkansas national forests in 2009, with the exception of Blanchard Springs Caverns, which remains open to public visitation. Bats are likely the primary carrier of the fungal pathogen from one site to another, but fungal spores may also be picked up unwittingly by people and carried to new sites on boots, clothing and caving gear.
White-nose syndrome has been called the worst wildlife health crisis in recent memory, and has caused mortality rates among bats ranging up to 100 percent in affected caves. The disease has been confirmed in 22 states, and the fungus has been found in another three: Oklahoma, Iowa and now Arkansas. Scientists have estimated the economic value of insect-eating bats to American agriculture at $22 billion annually. Bats also eat tons of insects harmful to forests, and their guano is essential to the survival of extremely rare cave organisms, such as cave salamanders and fish.
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.