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Bat Crisis: White-nose Syndrome
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 spokeswoman.

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 response plan.

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 other states.

“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 Resources website.

While white-nose syndrome cannot be transmitted to people, bats, like other wildlife, can carry other diseases that can affect humans.

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 Resources biologist.

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 said.

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 Kentucky.

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 Carr.

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 economy.

Besides the loss of pest control, bats are also important plant pollinators, biologists say.

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 caves.

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 Kentucky.

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.

Photo © Paul S. Hamilton