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January 19, 2012
North American bat death toll exceeds 5 million from white-nose syndrome
On the verge of another season of winter hibernating bat surveys, U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service biologists and partners estimate that at least 5.7 million to 6.7 million bats have now died from white-nose syndrome.
Biologists expect the disease to continue to spread, although it has not yet been confirmed in South Carolina.
White-nose syndrome (WNS) is decimating bat populations across eastern North America, with mortality rates reaching up to 100 percent at many sites. First documented in New York in 2006, the disease has spread quickly into 16 states and four Canadian provinces. Bats with WNS exhibit unusual behavior during cold winter months, including flying outside during the day and clustering near the entrances of caves and mines where they hibernate. Bats have been found sick and dying in unprecedented numbers near these hibernacula.
White-nose syndrome has not yet been detected in South Carolina, but wildlife biologists believe it is only a matter of time before the fungal scourge arrives in the Palmetto State. It has been detected in Transylvania County, North Carolina, which borders northwestern South Carolina. The U.S. Forest Service has placed a ban on entering mines and caves on National Forest lands in the region that includes South Carolina, to reduce the spread of WNS.
Estimating the total number of bat deaths has been a difficult challenge for biologists. Although consistent population counts for federally listed endangered bats, like the Indiana bat, have been a priority for state and federal biologists, establishing population counts of once "common" bat species, like little brown bats, was historically not the primary focus of seasonal bat population counts.
"White-nose syndrome has spread quickly through bat populations in eastern North America, and has caused significant mortality in many colonies," said Dr. Jeremy Coleman, national WNS coordinator. "Many bats were lost before we were able to establish pre-white-nose syndrome population estimates."
More than 140 partners, including tribal, state and federal biologists and bat researchers convened in Carlisle, Pa., for the 2012 Northeast Bat Working Group meeting last week to discuss challenges facing bat research, management and conservation. Coordinating with wildlife officials in Canada, the group discussed population-level impacts to hibernating bats and developed the estimate of bats lost to WNS.
In addition to the lack of population data for many bat species, there has also been a lack of consistency in how bat population data was reported among agencies. As part of the May 2011 national WNS response plan, which was developed by the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service in partnership with a team of federal, state, tribal, and non-governmental scientists, agencies are addressing this by establishing methods for consistent data collection.
The National Plan for Assisting States, Federal Agencies and Tribes in Managing White-Nose Syndrome in Bats provides a framework for the coordination and management of the national WNS investigation response, and the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service leads an extensive network of partners in implementing the plan.
The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service serves as the primary resource for up-to-date information and recommendations for all partners, such as important decontamination protocols for cave researchers and visitors and a cave access advisory that requests a voluntary moratorium on activities in caves in affected states to minimize the potential spread of WNS.
In addition to developing science-based protocols and guidance for land management agencies and other partners to minimize the spread of WNS, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service has funded numerous research projects to support and assess management recommendations and improve our basic understanding of the dynamics of the disease.
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