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Bat Crisis: White-nose Syndrome
Burlington Free Press, November 14, 2010

I believe: 'Life on Earth, in all its diversity, is a miracle'
By Mollie Matteson

As a child, I wanted to be a flying veterinarian. I imagined that when I grew up, I would pilot a little plane, fly from one distant farm to another in some remote part of the world, and care for animals in need, from horses to dogs to guinea pigs.

I didn't become a veterinarian, and I don't know how to fly a plane, but my impulse to come to the aid of other beings with whom we share this planet remains with me. Great creatures, small creatures; flying, swimming, furry, finned creatures; all these and more call up something immediate and instinctual in me that has shaped my life.

E.O. Wilson, the preeminent conservation biologist (and lover of ants), coined the term "biophilia" for the innate sense of connection humans feel with the natural world. Although the word lacks grace, it does recognize a feeling I believe lives strongly in many people: We have a deep knowing of our kinship with other life. Our lives are made more complete by our relationships with animals, along with trees, mountains, rivers, oceans.

By the time I became a young adult, I had grown out of my idea of becoming a vet. Instead I studied wildlife biology and reveled in my time out in the mountains, observing wild animals and their habitats. But following my urge to tend to things in the world that need mending, I veered into conservation and advocacy after graduate school.

For me, being a voice for wild species, despite the ways in which this work has taken me out of the field and into the realm of policy, has seemed a fair trade. Wild creatures have given me great happiness, and without them the world would be a much-diminished place.

But the past four years have been particularly hard ones to advocate for wildlife conservation in the Northeast. This is because of a sudden wildlife epidemic, known as white-nose syndrome, that is killing off many of our bats. The disease appears to be caused by a fungus introduced to North America and has precipitated what has been called the worst decline of wildlife ever known on this continent.

White-nose syndrome originated in New York, near Albany, in early 2006, and it has spread across the United States and Canada, decimating bat populations as it goes. Scientists have predicted the extinction of several bat species within the next few decades, or possibly the next few years.

Biologists have been stunned by the lethality of the disease, with mortality rates as high as 100 percent in affected bat colonies. Six bat species have been sickened; three others have been documented with the probable fungal pathogen. More than a million bats have died. Our bats appear to have no immunity, while bats in Europe, which recently were found with the fungus on them (once scientists went looking), do not seem to become sick.

Although no one knows for sure how the fungus arrived here, many biologists think the most likely scenario is that people who had been in caves in Europe then came to the United States, carrying the fungus on their boots, gear or clothing.

Regardless of whether the origins of white-nose syndrome are traceable to humans, the fact remains that even before the disease arrived, bats were in trouble in the United States. Many populations had declined dramatically over decades or more of direct persecution by people. Habitat loss and environmental toxins also have caused bats to decline, though with only a few people studying bats intensively prior to the onset of white-nose syndrome, it is hard to know exactly how these threats affected bat numbers.

Although white-nose syndrome has been a particularly dramatic example of species collapse, the accelerated loss of life forms, from mammals to birds, from fish to plants, is a global phenomenon with frightening implications. Scientists say we are in the midst of our planet's sixth great extinction. The speed at which species are disappearing is 1,000-10,000 times greater than normal background rates. A staggering 30-50 percent of all species could be extinct by the next century.

What distinguishes the previous mass extinctions from this one (the last one was 65 million years ago, when the dinosaurs died out) is that the past extinctions were due to great planetary events, such as an asteroid strike, or geological upheaval, such as a worldwide surge in volcanic eruptions.

But the sixth great extinction is happening because of the actions of one species that has come to dominate the entire globe. This species, of course, is us, Homo sapiens. And such has been our impact on the planet's land, water, air and diversity of life that some scientists say we our undermining our own life-support systems.

Some people ask, "Why save the bats?" One answer is obvious. Bats eat tons of bugs, and without bats, we might see large surges in the numbers of certain flying insects, including those that eat farmers' crops.

However, what keeps me going, ultimately, is not the utility of bats, or Atlantic salmon, or Canada lynx, or any of the other species I have worked to protect. It comes down to this for me: Life on Earth, in all its diversity, is a miracle. And I believe that if people can awake to that, there is no question why protecting this marvel of the universe is deeply important to us.

We need these other creatures not just because they are part of the web of life that supports us humans, as well. We need these others because they are kin, and they allow us to understand a fuller measure of our humanity.

Mollie Matteson is a conservation advocate for the Northeast office of the Center for Biological Diversity. She grew up in Bennington, then lived in the West for nearly 20 years before returning in 2002 to work on wilderness and wildlife issues. She lives in Richmond with her husband, Kevin, her two teenagers, and two cats and two dogs. One of her favorite things to do is paddle a solo canoe in the Adirondacks.

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Photo © Paul S. Hamilton