Vermont has been awarded $25,000 from $1 million in funding distributed by the U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service to respond to the white-nose fungal disease that has devastated the bat population. Alyssa Bennett, small mammals biologist for the Vermont Fish & Wildlife Department, said some bat species are harder hit by White-Nose Syndrome, or WNS, than others. “We saw some pretty dramatic declines for some of the species. We have nine species of bats in Vermont, but six of those hibernate in the winter so they're the ones susceptible to the disease,” she said. WNS, a fungal disease that affects some species of bats, has been found in Vermont and more than 30 other states as well as seven Canadian provinces. WNS was first found in New York in 2006, and in Vermont a short time later. The disease causes bats to become more active and burn up fat they need to survive in winter. Vermont residents may have seen the results of WNS because some infected bats tend to behave unusually and fly outside during the day or in the winter. The fungus grows in cold, dark and damp places, such as the caves where bats hibernate. Catherine J. Hibbard, public affairs specialist for WNS from the U.S Fish & Wildlife Service's Northeast office, said there is no cure or treatment for WNS, but several states with the help of federal funding are working on ways to slow or prevent the fungus from spreading. Bennett said it would be challenging to talk about the state of bats in Vermont without noting some populations have been strongly affected and others seem to be immune to WNS to date. In Vermont, the little brown bat, the northern long-eared bat and the tri-color bat had seen population declines of about 90 percent early in the study of WNS. “(Northern long-eared bats) are so extremely rare to find in the summer. In fact, we actually still find them dead and dying outside of our large hibernacula in the winter so that suggests they are still going through a difficult mortality period each winter. There's so few of them left though that it's really difficult to actually get a grasp on any kind of numbers or specific rate of decline. I can just say that we're seeing them more dead than alive in the winter, and there's not many of them left,” Bennett said. The Indiana bat was once found in three different hibernacula in Vermont. But a population survey conducted last year found Indiana bats in only two hibernacula in 2017. “The numbers at all the sites just continue to go down and the regional information from the U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service also indicates their overall population in the Northeast just continues to decline after white-nose. That is definitely a concern,” Bennett said. Hibbard said nationally 11 species of bats have been identified as susceptible to WNS. The 2017 Vermont survey found about 20 Indiana bats in the state's hibernacula compared to about 300 in 2004. Bennett said researchers also found some species saw an early, drastic population decline while other species were showing more of a cumulative loss over time. All three species are now listed as endangered in Vermont, just because of WNS, Bennett said, but variations seem to persist. The little brown bat population appears to have stabilized among the 10 percent remaining, while northern long-eared bats have disappeared from a number of hibernacula. But Bennett said another Vermont species, the big brown bat, was not really hit hard. There are a variety of reasons one species of bat may be more resistant to the fungus. Wildlife biologists are trying to keep those bats alive. If they have a genetic advantage that allows them to resist WNS, that should be perpetuated in the species, Bennett said. With $25,000 in federal funding, Vermont will pursue several objectives, including developing sites in Stockbridge and Bridgewater, that could be used to test WNS treatment and research, monitor bat populations at seven hibernacula in the state, coordinate with other agencies and conduct outreach to help preserve the existing bat population. Hibbard said across the country, there are experimental treatments being tested, including a habitat treatment in an old railroad tunnel in Pennsylvania and a mist that researchers hope will slow the spread. Wildlife biologists are still limited because treatments have only been tested in artificial environments like abandoned tunnels. If an effective treatment is identified it will be a challenge to determine how to apply it to bat populations, Hibbard said. The federal government is doing its part, according to Hibbard, by providing funding to states where there may be no other source of money to protect the bat population. Hibbard indicated that Bennett, who works in Rutland, had taken a leadership role in the national response during the annual WNS conferences, which this year took place in Tacoma, Washington. patrick.mcardle@rutlandherald.com

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