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For Immediate Release, April 26, 2012

Contact: Mollie Matteson, (802) 318-1487

Bat-killing Epidemic Strikes C&O Canal National Historical Park Stretching Through Nation's Capital

WASHINGTON— A disease that has killed nearly 7 million bats across the eastern United States has struck a colony of bats at the historic C&O Canal National Historical Park, which runs through parts of Maryland, West Virginia and Washington, D.C. The popular respite for urban dwellers in the sprawling capital region is also home to Maryland’s largest group of hibernating bats. Now the wildlife epidemic known as white-nose syndrome has invaded this well-loved natural sanctuary — just minutes from the government offices where decisions affecting the disease’s outcome may be made.

“The appearance of this terrible bat-killing disease on the outskirts of the nation's capital should be a wake-up call to the White House, members of Congress and agency leaders to do more to address what’s shaping up to be the worst wildlife catastrophe of the century,” said Mollie Matteson, a bat specialist with the Center for Biological Diversity. “Much more can be done to address this disease, including providing more funding for research, restricting access to caves on federal lands and passing the Wildlife Disease Emergency Act, now under consideration in Congress.”

In just six years, the invasive fungal growth that appears on bats’ muzzles as they hibernate has spread to bat colonies in 20 states and four Canadian provinces. Biologists believe several bat species may become extinct as a result of white-nose syndrome, believed to have been inadvertently introduced to a commercial cave in upstate New York from Europe, probably by a cave visitor.

Its appearance in the C&O Canal National Historic Park is no surprise to park officials, as it was found on neighboring state property last year. Surveyors counted the lowest number of bats this year since they began tracking the bat population at the site in 1998. In northeastern states, where the bat disease has been present the longest, bat populations are down by more than 90 percent.  

Earlier this week, senators held a hearing on the Wildlife Disease Emergency Act, which would create a monetary fund and rapid-response structure for dealing with wildlife health crises like white-nose syndrome. Introduced last year by Sen. Frank Lautenberg (D-N.J.), the bill would allow the Interior Department to declare a wildlife disease emergency and create a committee to oversee research and policy decisions, including coordination of state, federal and private entities.

“This bill needs immediate passage,” said Matteson. “With bats dying on the doorstep of the nation’s capital, decision-makers need to understand that the health of the natural world has real impact on people. Buggier nights in D.C. may be the very least of our problems if more resources are not put to responding to this disease — and soon.”

Matteson said passing the bill would befit the legacy of former Supreme Court Justice William O. Douglas, an ardent hiker and outdoorsman who, by organizing a hike of C&O Canal’s entire 184 miles in 1954, led the fight to stop it from being paved over for use as a highway. Douglas believed the environment should be given legal “standing” and deserved the government's protection.

Background on White-nose Syndrome
The early response to white-nose syndrome was hampered by a lack of coordination and adequate resources for state and federal biologists, who first scrambled to understand what was happening in the winter of 2007-08 when sickened bats in New York, and then neighboring states, started flying out of caves and mines by the thousands in the middle of winter. The rapid spread of the disease to new states every subsequent winter has increased pressure for a centralized response network that would make communication and sharing of information and resources more efficient.

Two weeks ago, the Center for Biological Diversity petitioned the White House to take action to speed up the response to white-nose syndrome, requesting that it provide direction to the various federal agencies involved thus far, including the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, National Park Service, U.S. Forest Service, Bureau of Land Management and U.S. Geological Survey. The Center cited inconsistency and lack of coordination among the agencies as a major hindrance to  efforts to contain the spread of the disease.

“The loss of bats is a disaster for both the natural world and for the nation's economy,” said Matteson. “Bats provide an estimated $22 billion in pest-control services to American farmers every year. By eating hordes of insects, bats contribute immensely to our comfort, as well as our economic well-being.”

Earlier this winter, the bat disease was reported for the first time in Alabama, Delaware and Missouri. Scientists believe it could soon spread across the entire country, and may threaten the survival of most of the nation’s two-dozen hibernating bat species. To date, nine species of bats have been found with the white-nose fungus; of these, six species have experienced mortality, several of them at rates approaching 100 percent in affected caves. 

Scientists do not yet have an effective treatment. The only known way to contain the spread of white-nose is to reduce the risk of human transport of the fungus by closing caves to nonessential access and requiring decontamination procedures of those entering caves.

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The Center for Biological Diversity is a national, nonprofit conservation organization with more than 350,000 members and online activists dedicated to the protection of endangered species and wild places.

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