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Disease That Has Killed 7 Million Bats Strikes Missouri

JEFFERSON CITY, Mo. - Wildlife agency officials announced today the first cases of white-nose syndrome — an emergent disease that has devastated North American bat populations over the past several winters — in Missouri. Lab results confirmed that bats from two caves in Lincoln County, north of St. Louis, were infected with the deadly fungus, which has killed nearly 7 million bats throughout the eastern United States and Canada since it was first documented in upstate New York in 2006. The discovery is the first official report of the bat disease west of the Mississippi River. In 2010, the fungal pathogen was detected on asymptomatic bats in Missouri and Oklahoma.

“White-nose syndrome in Missouri is following the deadly pattern it has exhibited elsewhere,” said Mollie Matteson, a bat specialist with the Center for Biological Diversity, which has worked for years to raise funds for, and curb, the bat crisis. “First the fungus shows up on a few healthy bats. A couple of years later, the disease strikes. And if the pattern continues, we can expect that in another few years, the majority of Missouri’s hibernating bats will be dead.”

Bats provide vital services where they live. In Missouri, for example, it’s estimated that the state’s 775,000 gray bats eat more than 223 billion bugs each year.

Last month biologists confirmed white-nose syndrome for the first time in Alabama and Delaware, and National Park Service officials reported the bat disease for the first time in Acadia National Park in Maine and Great Smoky Mountain National Park in Tennessee and North Carolina. The disease has also been rapidly spreading this year to new locations in Kentucky, Ohio and Indiana, where it was documented for the first time last winter.

The bat epidemic is the worst wildlife-disease decline in U.S. history. Nine species of bat have been found with the fungus, and of these, six species have experienced mortality, several of them at rates approaching 100 percent. Biologists fear that several bat species, including the once-common little brown bat, may become extinct. 

Scientists do not yet have an effective treatment; the only known way to contain the spread of white-nose 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. Researchers believe the previously unknown fungus killing the bats was introduced to North America by cave visitors from Europe. There, the fungus has been discovered on bats in several countries, but it appears to do little to no harm to them. 

Bats themselves can transmit the disease to each other and to new locations, but they are not capable of migrations greater than a few hundred miles. Fears of long-distance transport of fungus by people prompted limited cave closures on western federal lands following the discovery of the pathogen on asymptomatic bats in Missouri and western Oklahoma in 2010. However, western land managers have taken few precautionary measures against human spread since then.

In 2010 the Center filed a federal petition calling for the closure of bat caves on all federal lands in the lower 48 states as a precaution against the potential human spread of white-nose. Most federal lands in the eastern United States already have closure rules in place or require screening and decontamination of cave tourists, as is the case at Mammoth Cave National Park in Kentucky. But the majority of caves on western federal lands remain open, and decontamination procedures are not required.

“Now that white-nose syndrome is clearly at the doorstep of the West, there can be no more excuses for inaction on the part of western land mangers,” said Matteson. “This killer disease has shown over and over again that it moves in subtly at first, but before you know it there are dead bats all over the place.” 

White-nose syndrome is now confirmed in 19 states and suspected in one; it is also confirmed in four Canadian provinces.

The loss of bug-eating bats may result in economic losses to American agriculture, as well as burgeoning populations of insects, no longer kept in check by bats. Scientists estimate that the loss of bats may cost farmers between $3.7 billion and $53 billion annually in crop losses and increased pesticide use, due to the disappearance of bats’ natural, freely provided pest control. Bats consume thousands of tons of insects every year.

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At the Center for Biological Diversity, we believe that the welfare of human beings is deeply linked to nature - to the existence in our world of a vast diversity of wild animals and plants. Because diversity has intrinsic value, and because its loss impoverishes society, we work to secure a future for all species, great and small, hovering on the brink of extinction. We do so through science, law, and creative media, with a focus on protecting the lands, waters, and climate that species need to survive.

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