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West Virginia bat experts accessing dangers of White Nose Syndrome

Feb. 28, 2008 @ 02:54 PM

CHARLESTON — Thousands of bats have been found dead or dying in caves and mines in New York state.  The cause is a mysterious condition known as “White Nose Syndrome” because a white fungus is present on the muzzles of affected bats.  The condition was first discovered in four caves in New York in 2007 but it has now been confirmed in 15 caves and mines, including sites in Vermont and Massachusetts as well as additional caves in New York.  The sites where White Nose Syndrome has been confirmed contain approximately 400,000 hibernating bats.  Many more caves could be impacted if this condition spreads. 

            If this condition is introduced into West Virginia it could devastate populations of bats that reside in the state’s numerous caves.   Because all bats in the region feed solely on insects, the loss of significant numbers of bats would reduce the benefits these mammals provide in controlling insect populations, including species that may be pests to humans.  The West Virginia Division of Natural Resources (WVDNR) and the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service are soliciting the help of cavers and cave owners to keep this condition out of the state’s important bat caves.

            As with other emerging wildlife issues, answers are not coming quickly despite the efforts of several colleges, universities and wildlife-disease laboratories across the nation.  Although officials do not know the cause of the problem, what is known is that affected bats appear to have used up their winter fat stores early in the season and may not be able to survive the winter.  The fungus apparent on the bats may not be the cause of the problem, but may be a secondary infection of bats weakened by some other condition.  The actual cause may be fungal, viral, bacterial or some other agent.

            It is not known how this syndrome is spread.  It may be spread by cave soil that is transferred from cave to cave by cavers.  Until officials know more, they need to presume this is a possible means by which the disease spreads.  If it is carried from cave to cave by the bats themselves, there may be little that can be done to prevent the spread of White Nose Syndrome.  Potential risks to humans are being assessed. 

            Bat surveys conducted by the WVDNR this winter have not detected White Nose Syndrome in West Virginia.  To reduce the risk of this syndrome being introduced into bat populations in caves in West Virginia, a list of important bat caves has been developed, and the WVDNR and U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service are asking people to avoid these caves and to minimize caving in West Virginia until more is known. Guidelines are being developed for cavers to follow when visiting caves in West Virginia (these will minimize the likelihood of spreading this problem) and what to do if an affected bat is observed (these will help biologists keep up with the spread of this problem).  Up-to-date information on White Nose Syndrome, including the list of closed caves, a notice to cavers planning to visit West Virginia and recommendations for cavers in the Northeast can be found at http://www.fws.gov/northeast/white_nose.html.