To fight spread of bat dis­ease, many caves, mines to be closed

Austin American-Statesman - - WORLD & NATION - By Arielle Frid­son

Hik­ers may be locked out of hun­dreds of caves and 30,000 aban­doned mines in the West and Mid­west in a govern­ment plan to pro­tect bat from man.

The cave closings may come within the week, said For­est Ser­vice spokes­woman Janelle Smith, and are the lat­est ef­forts to com­bat a dis­ease called white nose syn­drome that has dev­as­tated bat com­mu­ni­ties in 13 states and two Cana­dian prov­inces. The dis­ease, per­haps caused by a fun­gus, may spread to more states as hik­ers and tourists in­ad­ver­tently carry spores on their cloth­ing, Smith said.

The loss of swaths of the bat pop­u­la­tion may threaten corn and soy­bean crops and other parts of the agri­cul­ture and tim­ber in­dus­tries, said Mol­lie Mat­te­son, a con­ser­va­tion ad­vo­cate at the Cen­ter for Bi­o­log­i­cal Di­ver­sity in Tuc­son, Ariz. Bats help con­trol in­sect pests, eat­ing as much as twothirds of their body weight per night, said Holly Ober, as­sis­tant pro­fes­sor at the Uni­ver­sity of Florida in Quincy, Fla., in a 2008 Depart­ment of Wildlife Ecol­ogy and Con­ser­va­tion doc­u­ment.

“It’s a cat­a­strophic sit­u­a­tion for bats,” said Jeremy Cole­man, a bi­ol­o­gist with the Fish and Wildlife Ser­vice who stud­ies white nose syn­drome in Cort­land, N.Y. “We don’t have any tools at our ready to treat them or to con­trol the Bat colonies in 13 states have been dev­as­tated by white nose syn­drome. The loss of bats could leave crops vul­ner­a­ble to pests. spread, other than clos­ing ac­cess to hu­mans,” he said.

“There are just too many un­knowns,” Cole­man said.

The big brown bat, a species widely dis­trib­uted in North Amer­ica, feasts on in­sects that de­stroy corn, soy­bean and cot­ton crops, ac­cord­ing to the re­port by Ober.

The fun­gus thought to cause the dis­ease was first de­tected in New York in 2006 and may have killed more than 1 mil­lion bats, ac­cord­ing to a May re­port from the Fish and Wildlife Ser­vice. The agency called the dis­ease “the worst wildlife health cri­sis in me­mory.”

The dis­ease only af­fects hi­ber­nat­ing bat species, which ac­count for a lit­tle over half of the 45 va­ri­eties in North Amer­ica, said Mat­te­son. So far nine species, in­clud­ing the big brown bat, are known to be af­fected. Some of them are now threat­ened with ex­tinc­tion, the May re­port said.

In a May news re­lease, Austin-based Bat Con­ser­va­tion In­ter­na­tional said the po­ten­tial im­pact of white nose syn­drome on the lo­cal Mex­i­can free-tail colony was still not known. “These bats share their win­ter and sum­mer ranges with many hi­ber­nat­ing species,” the group said. “Bi­ol­o­gists fear that mi­grat­ing free­tails, even if they are not them­selves bat­tered by the dis­ease, may prove to be car­ri­ers that spread the fun­gus.”

Greg Thomp­son

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