By Keith Whitcomb on BenningtonBanner.com
"If this goes unchecked we could very well see bat extinction in the Northeast."
An illness that state biologists believe is killing off the bat population is spreading north.
Ryan Smith, a biologist with the Vermont Department of Fish and Wildlife, said Wednesday that White Nose Syndrome (WNS) was first discovered in Vermont two years ago in Dorset.
"Although reports are concentrated around Johnson at this time, we are also receiving scattered reports from other sections of the state," he said. "Unfortunately, WNS has continued to spread north, and we expect to receive more reports of abnormal bat activity from the northern half of the state. Last winter reports were concentrated in southern Vermont, but bat populations there have been devastated over the past two winters."
Smith said that the current theory is that the bats are being infected with a fungus that irritates them into waking up more often while they are hibernating. He said the bats then burn through their winter fat reserves faster than they should, and die. He said that a bat normally wakes up every two weeks during the winter, but with WNS, it’s closer to every four or five days.
The public is still being asked to report sightings of dead bats or unusual
bat behavior, such as flying in the daytime or on warm, winter days. Such
behavior is often a symptom of WNS. "As a result, people living near some caves
or mines are seeing increasing activity and mortality in these animals. Some are
finding dead bats on their porches or window screens, observing bats flying in
the day, or having bats enter their houses," said Scott Darling, the state
biologist at the head of the WNS study.
Smith said that he spoke with homeowners Wednesday who reside in Johnson, who reported roughly two dozen dead bats on their porch over the last week.
Lack of funding
He said that while the state continues to monitor the problem, serious studies have been hampered by a lack of funding. "Funding is still the major issue with it," he said, adding that biologists still aren’t sure how the fungus relates to bat mortality or if the fungus is spread from bat to bat or is part of the cave environment.
Smith said that bats from Wisconsin have been imported to a cave where the bat population was wiped out to see if the bats will contract WNS. He said that the study is still ongoing and the idea is to see if the problem comes from the cave or other bats. Smith said that biologists hope that the fungus is spread from bat to bat, otherwise some method of cleaning the caves will have to be devised.
He said that New York is currently experimenting with spraying caves with a fungicide in order to halt the progress of the syndrome. Should that method prove to work, Vermont may consider it.
The disease was first documented at the Howe Caverns, in central New York, Smith said. Because the caverns are open to the public, one theory is that the fungus was brought in from Europe by human foot traffic. Smith said that European bats infected with the fungus have not suffered like the ones in the United States, although no one knows why.
"If this goes unchecked we could very well see bat extinction in the Northeast," Smith said, adding that dead bats have not been reported in areas that were hit hard. "We aren’t seeing the mortality this year, which isn’t really a good sign. It indicates that they were wiped out over the two years."
The department is asking people to not attempt to rehabilitate sick bats. Darling said that bats leaving caves are too emaciated to be helped by anything short of intensive care by trained professionals and there is a danger of spreading the illness by moving the bats. He said that people should continue to report sick or dead bats to the department.