White-nose syndrome spreads to two states
Staff Report | January 30,2009
RICHMOND — White-nose syndrome, the puzzling disease that has killed hundreds of thousands of hibernating bats in the Northeast over the past two winters — including in Vermont — has now been confirmed in two new states, Pennsylvania and New Jersey.
The announcement came just a couple weeks after news reports that bizarre bat behavior — bats flying around in the middle of winter during daylight hours — had been observed in parts of Vermont and Massachusetts.
The Pennsylvania Game Commission announced last week that the disease has been documented in Mifflin County, in central Pennsylvania, in a mine occupied by wintering bats, according to representatives at a biodiversity center in Richmond.
The syndrome has also recently been discovered afflicting hibernating bats in New Jersey.
The endangered Indiana bat is among the several species that have been dying from the syndrome.
Because of pre-existing threats to Indiana bats, and the potential for the disease to spread to bats in other parts of the eastern United States, last year conservation groups notified the federal government that they would sue unless wildlife and land-management agencies re-examined their activities potentially affecting bats and took into account the new threat of white-nose syndrome.
"The fact that white-nose syndrome is now confirmed in Pennsylvania and New Jersey, and appears to be spreading to other bat wintering sites in Vermont and elsewhere, should galvanize our wildlife agencies to take all precautionary measures to stop further declines in bat populations," Mollie Matteson, conservation advocate in the Center for Biological Diversity in Richmond, said.
"We are looking at the potential extinction of several species of bats in the Northeast within a few years' time. There can be no more excuses for allowing activities that harm bats or destroy bat habitat," Matteson said.
"We may not be able to stop white-nose syndrome, but we can definitely stop cutting down forests, building roads, and allowing sprawl in places where endangered bats live."
Because the reports of winter-emergent bats came earlier this year than last, scientists have speculated that the illness — which is associated with an unusual fungus that grows on the muzzles, wings and other parts of bats — is causing symptomatic responses among the bats sooner this winter than last.
The syndrome was first discovered in caves and mines near Albany, N.Y., in late winter 2007. It has since spread to nearly all known bat wintering sites in the state, as well as to Vermont, Massachusetts, and Connecticut.
Last year, the syndrome was suspected, but not confirmed, in Pennsylvania.
Matteson says that for now, the conservationists are taking a wait-and-see attitude with regard to the response of the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service and other federal agencies to the latest news about the bat illness.
"We know that the bats have even less margin for survival now," Matteson said.
The Center for Biological Diversity has supported increased federal funding to help find the cause of this terrible epidemic, and that will continue, Matteson said. "If there's a cure for this disease, it needs to be discovered very soon, before it's too late."