A National Plan to Combat White-Nose Syndrome

Cluster of hibernating Indiana bats (Photo: Andrew King, FWS)

In May, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service (FWS) published a national plan for the management of white-nose syndrome (WNS), a disease that is currently devastating bat populations in the Northeastern U.S. and quickly spreading. WNS, thought to be caused by the fungus Geomyces destructans, is believed to disrupt the bats’ hibernation, generally resulting in their starvation and death. The new plan is meant to allow for coordination among the many state and federal agencies, tribal governments, NGOs, and research institutions necessary to respond to the rapidly spreading disease. The plan emphasizes the need to minimize human transmission of the fungus by closing caves and enforcing decontamination protocols. It also advocates for the creation of uniform research standards, a secure database of information to aid collaboration, sufficient laboratory capacity, and application of epidemiological science in the study of WNS. At present, the national plan is still a mere framework; a forthcoming implementation plan will be carried out by state and tribal agencies.

While a national plan is a step in the right direction, witnesses at a recent hearing held by the House Subcommittee on Fisheries, Wildlife, Oceans and Insular Affairs stressed that without implementation, this plan achieves nothing for the bats. They also stated unequivocally that a lack of funding has thus far hindered research needed to answer the many remaining questions about the disease. With a recent U.S. Geological Survey study estimating that bats provide pest-control services worth $12-$174 per acre per year to agriculture, failing to act could result in an increase in crop losses as the disease spreads to more agricultural areas, as well as lost tourism revenue, forestry losses due to insect pests, human disease spread by mosquitoes, and costs associated with having to list more bat species under the Endangered Species Act (ESA). Just this week, FWS announced a 90-day status review to evaluate whether the eastern small-footed bat and the northern long-eared bat warrant listing under the ESA due solely to losses from WNS.

Indiana bat (Photo: FWS)

Unfortunately, threats to bats abound. For example, a member of Defenders’ staff is participating in a project with the Emerging Wildlife Conservation Leaders Program to minimize the effects of guano harvest in order to help preserve bat populations. White Nose Syndrome is perhaps the greatest threat, occurring at an intersection that includes endangered species policy, wind energy development, issues concerning recreational access to caves where bats hibernate, and more. Combating WNS will ease the cumulative impacts of these threats and allow more adaptability in all policy arenas concerned with bat survival today. At this point, increased funding for research is the key in the battle against WNS. Funding is necessary to determine bat and infection locations, the mechanism by which G. destructans attacks, and the fungus’ vulnerabilities. Only armed with that information can we move beyond defensive measures against the spread of WNS, to a solution.

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Alice Chmil is the Intern, Federal Lands Program for Defenders of Wildlife.

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dotWild is the blog of scientists and policy experts at Defenders of Wildlife, a national, nonprofit membership organization dedicated to the protection of all native animals and plants in their natural communities.