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US government takes on white-nose syndrome in bats

WhiteNose2428-300.jpgTo tackle the scourge of white-nose syndrome, which has killed more than a million bats in the northeastern United States, the US Fish and Wildlife Service (FWS) has proposed a national framework of investigation and response to the outbreak. It is seeking comment on the plan from the public beginning 28 October.

Government officials have been working to manage the disease, which affects bats during their hibernation in the winter months, for at least two years, though mostly under different agencies, says Jeremy Coleman, a FWS biologist coordinating the government’s white-nose syndrome response.

“The plan brings together all the things we’ve been doing informally and allows state, federal, and tribal agencies to work together,” he says.

The framework, which will be finalized by the end of the year, creates working groups to address various elements of response, including surveillance and monitoring, database construction, decontamination, and communication management between various agencies.

FWS is hoping public input will help identify ways to manage the disease that the agency has not yet considered, says Coleman. In March 2009, the department recommended a caving moratorium, to restrict the white-nose syndrome’s spread by humans.

“We are trying to prevent major jumps in the disease from human activities in excess of the distance the bats could transport it themselves,” says Coleman, citing previous evidence that suggested humans carried the fungus from West Virginia to Missouri and western Oklahoma.

The department suffers from a lack of information on the disease, he says, and needs to know how long the fungus persists, if it can be transmitted during the summer, and whether or not some species are more susceptible than others. In early October, FWS provided $1.6 million in grants for researchers investigating white-nose syndrome and bats, though Coleman says more study will be necessary in the long term.

“We’re looking at potentially losing our hibernating bat population and we don’t know the effects of that,” he says. “We could be facing some drastic ecological impacts.”

Previously: Bat fungus forces cave closure

Image: Al Hicks, NY Dept. of Environmental Conservation


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