Mystery Bat Illness Keeps Spreading

...Pandemic That Has Decimated NE's Bat Populations Was Detected Last Month In Tennessee

White Nose   Syndrom and Bat Hibernation Areas, Feb 26, 2010

WASHINGTON -- A rapidly spreading bat pandemic continues unchecked and could be on the verge of sweeping across the country, Senator Patrick Leahy warned Tuesday. He noted that the mystery disease – White Nose Syndrome – last month was found for the first time in Tennessee.

In a Senate hearing with Interior Department Secretary Ken Salazar, Leahy said the bat disease – which has already killed more than a million hibernating bats across the Northeast – could threaten the extinction of several bat species. Pointing to the crucial role that bats play in crop pollination and in consuming huge quantities of insect pests, Leahy said eventual agricultural losses alone could reach “into the hundreds of millions of dollars” if the pandemic is not stopped.

Leahy last year fought to double funding in the FY10 budget for targeted research and on the ground response to White Nose Syndrome (WNS) to $1.9 million.

The Administration has not requested specific funding for WNS in the new budget proposal for Fiscal Year 2011, released last month. At Tuesday’s Senate Appropriations Committee hearing on the Interior Department’s annual budget, Salazar did not lay out detailed funding plans on WNS but pledged to Leahy that WNS will remain a high priority for the U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service and other agencies. Leahy said he will keep a spotlight on the issue and will gauge the adequacy of the ongoing effort as Congress this year works on the Interior Department’s 2011 budget bill. Leahy is a senior member of the Appropriations Committee and of its Interior Subcommittee, which held the hearing.

WNS first appeared in bats in caves near Albany, N.Y., in 2006 and quickly spread to Vermont caves the following winter. In the three years since it was found in Vermont, WNS has infected every hibernating space in the state, with bat mortality in some caves reaching as high at 99 percent. Scientists have also confirmed that WNS has spread across the Northeast, and last month it was confirmed in a cave as far south as Tennessee.

This mystery disease is causing the steepest decline of North American wildlife of any such incident in the past century. Scientists believe that it has killed more than one million bats in less than four years and threatens to devastate bat populations across the entire continent. Because bats are slow breeders, producing on average only one pup per year, scientists fear this could result in the extinction of many bat species.

Responding to the troubling news from Vermont biologists, last year Leahy doubled funding in the Fish & Wildlife Service budget for targeted research on the disease. The increased funds are giving scientists and wildlife experts some of the resources needed to research and find ways to prevent the continued steep decline in bat populations.

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