(Beyond Pesticides, June 6, 2011) A broad coalition of conservation, organic-agriculture, anti-pesticide and food-safety groups, including Beyond Pesticides, are calling on Congress to stop the spread of the bat-killing disease which has wiped out more than one million bats, threatening six different species. The letter, sent June 1, 2011, urges Congress to appropriate funds for research and management of white-nose syndrome. Groups are also asking Senators to support the Wildlife Disease Emergency Act, a bill introduced this session by Sen. Frank Lautenberg (D-N.J.), to provide a framework and funding mechanism for effectively addressing wildlife disease crises like white-nose syndrome.
Insect-eating bats play an important economic role in agriculture and timber production. A study published earlier this year in the journal Science found that the value of bats’ pest-control services to agricultural operations in the United States ranges from $3.7 billion to $53 billion per year.
“White-nose syndrome is a wildlife crisis of unprecedented proportions,” said Mollie Matteson, a conservation advocate with the Center for Biological Diversity, which spearheaded the letter. “Left unchecked, the loss of bats is likely to have cascading effects on both the human and natural worlds for generations to come.”
Since 2006, the newly emergent white-nose syndrome has spread across the Northeast and now is infecting and killing bats from Nova Scotia to the Midwest and South. So far, it has been found in 17 states and four Canadian provinces. States and provinces reporting either the disease itself or the presence of the disease-causing fungus are: Connecticut, Delaware, Indiana, Kentucky, Maine, Maryland, Massachusetts, Missouri, New Hampshire, New Jersey, New York, North Carolina, Ohio, Oklahoma, Pennsylvania, Tennessee, Vermont, Virginia, West Virginia, Ontario, New Brunswick, Nova Scotia and Quebec.
“Bats are friends to farmers ”” particularly organic farmers,” says Ms. Matteson. “They eat thousands of tons of insects each year, and without them growers will need to use more pesticides or risk more crop losses. American agriculture can’t afford to lose these valuable bats.”
Earlier this spring, Sen. Lautenberg and Sen. Patrick Leahy (D-VT) proposed an appropriation of $10.8 million in 2012 for white-nose syndrome research, coordination and management. This figure is what the Department of the Interior reports spending since 2007 on responding to the bat disease. Bat scientists and agency biologists widely agree that lack of funding has seriously hampered a swift, effective response to the disease.
Many scientists believe that white-nose syndrome is caused by a cold-loving fungus that thrives on hibernating bats. Six species, so far, have proven susceptible. Biologists fear that all two dozen or so of the hibernating bat species in North America may eventually be devastated by white-nose syndrome. Already, at least three bat species are virtually extinct in the Northeast, where the disease has been present the longest. The disease has many of the hallmarks of a novel pathogen. Researchers think it was likely introduced recently to the United States, possibly on the boots or gear of a cave visitor who inadvertently brought the fungus from Europe. Bats in Europe have been found with the fungus but do not appear to become ill.
Because one would expect bats’ immune systems would have evolved a way to deal with fungus and other pathogens entering the body during hibernation, others believe that the disease may be linked to toxic chemicals or another environmental factor, either alone or in combination with the fungus.
“Adequate funding for research is desperately needed to give scientists the best shot at finding a cure,” says Ms. Matteson. “Meanwhile, federal and state wildlife agencies need funding help also, so they aren’t shifting scarce monies away from other important wildlife issues just to barely keep up with this fast-moving epidemic.”
Other groups that signed on include Californians for Alternatives to Toxics, Center for Food Safety, Local Harvest, Nebraska Sustainable Agriculture Society, Northeast Organic Farming Association””Connecticut, Northeast Organic Farming Association””Vermont, Organic Consumers Association, Organic Seed Growers and Trade Association, and TEDX (The Endocrine Disruption Exchange).
To learn more about bats and white-nose syndrome go to http://www.saveourbats.org.