WASHINGTON, DC, October 26, 2009 (ENS) – The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service today announced six grant awards totaling $800,000 to fund research into the cause and control of white-nose syndrome, a wildlife health crisis that has now killed more than a million bats in the Northeast and remains unchecked.
Biologists with state and federal agencies and organizations across the country are still trying to find the answer to this deadly mystery.
“These grants will provide critical funding to help the Service and our partners find the cause, find a cure and stop the spread of this deadly disease,” said Deputy Assistant Secretary for Fish and Wildlife and Parks Jane Lyder. “Bats are an incredibly important component of our nations ecosystem, and the loss of even one species could be disastrous for wildlife, agriculture and people.”
The Endangered Species Act protects six bat species in the lower 48 United States. One of the bat species currently affected by white-nose syndrome – the endangered Indiana bat – listed under the act.
The population of endangered Indiana bats in the Service’s Northeast Region dropped 30 percent from 2007 to 2009, according to preliminary estimates from the 2009 count of Indiana bats. The Northeast Region has 12 to 13 percent of the Indiana bat population.
White-nose syndrome has been documented in six counties in Virginia and West Virginia and is now within the range of two additional endangered bat species, the Virginia big-eared bat and gray bat.
Little brown bat with white-nose syndrome at Greeley Mine, Vermont, March 26, 2009. (Photo by Marvin Moriarty/USFWS)
White-nose syndrome was first observed in February 2006 some 40 miles west of Albany, New York, when a caver photographed hibernating bats with an unusual white substance on their muzzles. He noticed several dead bats.
The following winter, bats behaving erratically, bats with white noses, and a few hundred dead bats in several caves came to the attention of New York Department of Environmental Conservation biologists, who documented white-nose syndrome in January 2007.
“We have found sick, dying and dead bats in unprecedented numbers in and around caves and mines from Vermont to Virginia,” say biologists with the Service’s Northeast Region. “In some hiberating areas, 90 to 100 percent of the bats are dying.”
Although biologists cannot tell what the cause of white-nose syndrome is or how to cure it, the Service’s Northeast Regional Director Marvin Moriarty presented the framework for a national plan to manage the national response to the disease during a meeting of the Association of Fish and Wildlife Agencies in September in Austin, Texas.
The draft framework for the plan was prepared in coordination with the U.S. Geological Survey, National Park Service, U.S. Forest Service and state agencies.
Federal and state biologists, academics, researchers and nongovernmental partners have been overwhelmed by the unanticipated effects of this wildlife health crisis, but are committed to finding answers before species are lost forever.
The Fish and Wildlife Service provided the grants through the Preventing Extinction program. The Service selected recipients from among 41 grant proposals totaling $4.8 million for research into white-nose syndrome.
“We are very pleased and hopeful about the work funded by these six research grants. Our only regret is that we were unable to fund many more of the project proposals that could lead us to answers about what is killing our bats and how to control this devastating problem,” said the Services Jeremy Coleman, PhD, national white-nose syndrome coordinator.
One of the grants was awarded to the Smithsonians National Zoological Park to establish a captive population of the Virginia big-eared bat at the Conservation & Research Center near Front Royal, Virginia.
There are only 15,000 Virginia big-eared bats remaining in a few caves in West Virginia, Virginia, Kentucky and North Carolina. White-nose syndrome has already infected some of the caves in this area, and if it continues, this bat subspecies could likely become extinct.
The Conservation and Research Center to the National Zoo has developed a multidisciplinary team of scientists, veterinarians, nutritionists and curators who are working with the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service and West Virginia Division of Natural Resource to establish this insurance population of Virginia big-eared bats. They are trying to buy time to determine the cause of, and cure for, this disease.
Bats in this population may eventually be needed to re-establish the subspecies in the wild.
Virginia big-eared bats have never been kept or bred before in captivity, so lessons learned from this project will be of broad interest to agencies and organizations if white-nose syndrome in wild bat populations makes it necessary to consider captive breeding of other bat species.