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For Immediate Release, May 2, 2012

Contact:  Mollie Matteson, (802) 318-1487

Bat-killing Epidemic Spreads to Civil War Park at Lookout Mountain, Tennessee

LOOKOUT MOUNTAIN, Tenn.— A disease that has killed nearly 7 million bats across the eastern United States has struck a colony of bats at the Chickamauga and Chattanooga National Military Park, which sprawls from Tennessee into Georgia. The discovery of the disease at the site of one of the nation’s most famous Civil War battles marks the second time in a week the epidemic known as white-nose syndrome has been detected in a popular national park. Last week, the disease was found in the Washington, D.C.-area C&O Canal National Historic Park, home to Maryland’s largest group of hibernating bats. 

“Each new report of this disease’s catastrophic march across the country reaffirms this is the worst wildlife epidemic in U.S. history and demands decisive action from our leaders in Washington,” said Mollie Matteson, a bat specialist with the Center for Biological Diversity, which petitioned the White House on April 11 to direct swifter and better-coordinated national action to address the unbridled spread of the disease. “If we take the right steps, right away, we’ve got a shot at limiting the damage. But we need more funding for research, greater restrictions on cave access on federal lands, and for Congress to pass the Wildlife Disease Emergency Act, now under consideration.”

In just six years, the invasive fungal growth that appears on bats’ muzzles as they hibernate has spread to bat colonies in 19 states and four Canadian provinces, stretching from Nova Scotia to Missouri. In northeastern states, where the bat disease has been present the longest, bat populations are down by more than 90 percent. Biologists believe several bat species may become extinct as a result of white-nose syndrome, which they think was inadvertently introduced to North America from Europe by a cave visitor.

White-nose syndrome first appeared at a commercial cave in upstate New York in 2006. Bats appear to be the primary cause of local and regional disease spread, but scientists fear that humans can cause long-distance leaps of the disease, beyond the range of natural bat migration. For this reason, most caves on federal lands in the eastern and southern United States have been closed to nonessential access for the past several years.

Caves at Chickamauga and Chattanooga National Military Park were closed by the National Park Service in 2009 as a precaution against human transport of the bat disease. White-nose syndrome was reported for the first time in Tennessee in 2010.

Last 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.

“The loss of bats is a disaster for the natural world, but it also has serious ramifications for our economy,” said Matteson. “By eating hordes of insects, bats provide an estimated $22 billion in pest-control services to American farmers every year.”

Background on White-nose Syndrome
The early response to white-nose syndrome has been 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.

In mid-April, 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.

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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