LEWISBURG - More than six million bats are dead, and millions more are expected to fall victim to a disease known as white-nose syndrome, or WNS.
First identified in the northeastern U.S. the fungal disease has wiped out an estimated 95 percent of Pennsylvania's bat population and is spreading quickly across the country. It most recently was discovered in Missouri, Delaware and Alabama.
"This is like bringing small pox to the New World. It is surely an unprecedented wildlife disaster for North America," said DeeAnn Reeder, a Bucknell University professor.
Reeder is one of the country's leading experts on white-nose syndrome and one of the researchers responsible for identifying the cause of the disease in 2011.
"We can't stop this thing. It's marching across the country and we're going to see some extinction," she said.
Reeder has been studying the disease since shortly after it was discovered in a New York cave in 2006. Since then it was been detected in at least 17 other states. Few bats exposed to the fungus that causes the disease survive.
"I was recently in a mine where I should've seen 10,000 or so bats. There were 150," Reeder said. "We don't know if the survivors have some immunity, or are lucky. If they're just lucky, we're in trouble."
While Reeder and other scientists are turning their attention to surviving bats and the clues they may provide in slowing the spread of white-nose syndrome, the impact of the devastation to the country's bat population could be severe.
For every one million bats that die, 692 tons of insects that would have been eaten by the bats, survive the summer months, she said. That includes mosquitoes and agricultural pests.
Recent studies show bats provide billions of dollars worth of agricultural and pest-killing services.
Earlier this month, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service announced the dispersal of about $1.4 million to continue the investigation of white-nose syndrome and identify ways to manage it.
Seven grants were awarded by the service to a handful of entities, including Reeder and her Bucknell crew, which includes biology professor Ken Field.
Funding was provided through Endangered Species Recovery funds.
"Research will continue to be essential to the response to white-nose syndrome in North America," said Dr. Jeremy Coleman, the service's national WNS coordinator. "We have made incredible progress in our understanding of the disease and how it affects bats, but we still have work to do. These projects will help further our understanding of WNS and the tools available to manage this devastating disease."
White-nose syndrome has been confirmed in 19 states and four Canadian provinces at caves and mines where bats hibernate.
On April 11, the Center for Biological Diversity petitioned the White House Council on Environmental Quality to take immediate action to stem the spread of white-nose syndrome. It urged the council to direct federal land management agencies to take measures to prevent the further spread of the disease.
"The loss of bats to white-nose syndrome is an unprecedented natural disaster that will have real financial consequences for many Americans," said Mollie Matteson, conservation advocate for the center. "Not only do some bats species face extinction, but American farmers stand to lose an estimated $22 billion in lost insect-eating services that bats provide. This crisis is deepening by the day and it's time for the highest reaches of our government to take action."
The petition asks the White House to direct federal land management agencies - including the U.S. Forest Service, Bureau of Land Management and National Park Service, which collectively manage millions of acres across the U.S. - to enact consistent regulations limiting human entry to caves on public lands in order to prevent spread of the disease to the western U.S. and other areas.
The steps are needed, the center insists, because white-nose syndrome has been found to be caused by a newly described fungus, named Geomyces destructans, that can be carried on the shoes, clothes or gear of any person visiting contaminated caves. It very likely is being spread by people, the center reports.
In fact, evidence indicates that the disease recently and inadvertently was introduced to North America by a cave visitor on both continents.
Recognizing these realities, some agencies have enacted cave closures and decontamination procedures, but many have not, including most federal land management agencies in the West, where the disease has not yet spread.
"Despite the severity and rapid spread of this disease, the response from federal land managers has been inconsistent and, in many cases, lackluster," Matteson said. "This crisis begs a comprehensive response that only the White House can provide."
Nine species of bat have been found with the white-nose fungus and, of these, six species have experienced mortality, several of them at rates approaching 100 percent in affected caves.
Biologists fear that several bat species, including the once-common little brown bat, soon may become extinct.
To date, scientists do not have an effective treatment. The only known way to contain the spread of WNS is to reduce the risk of human transport of the fungus by closing caves to nonessential access and requiring decontamination procedures of those still entering caves.
For more information, visit SaveOurBats.org.