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A new fungal threat to bats may have implications
for agriculture


SNOHOMISH COUNTY — Scientists are scrambling to deal with a bat-killing disease which has recently made its way from the East Coast to the Pacific Northwest.
The disease could have serious consequences for local agriculture.
Over the past ten years, bat populations in Eastern North America have declined by a staggering 20 percent. This is attributed directly to white-nose syndrome, a cold-loving fungal disease that manifests itself in and around the nose and wings of bats. Since first documented in New York in 2006, it has killed between an estimated 5.5 to 6.7 million bats.
Pacific Northwest bats may have a better fighting chance.
Scientists say the disease was first discovered in the Pacific Northwest in March of last year, which had jumped an incredible 1,300 miles from its previously known most-westward location.
Barbara Ogaard, a bat specialist with Bats Northwest and wildlife rehabilitator for the Sarvey Wildlife Care Center in Arlington, affectionately known as the “Bat Lady,” said some Pacific Northwest bats may have a better fighting chance.


Barbara Ogaard, the Bat Lady

Ogaard rehabilitates anywhere between 15 to 20 bats a year, and she says the effects of a bat die-off could be devastating, “Each and every bat eats 600 to thousands of bugs a night; that’s possibly billions of dollars in pesticides for all the farmers and growers in our area.”
“We’re fortunate because our bats are different from the ones on the East Coast, in the sense that they don’t live in as large of colonies as the bats out there; so it doesn’t spread as easily here,” Ogaard said.
A 2010 study estimates the value of bats as pest control is worth billions of dollars to the nation’s agriculture industry. Scientists are not only concerned about the effects on agriculture, but also on human health.
Abby Tobin, White-Nose Syndrome Coordinator for Washington State Fish & Wildlife, said, “Mortality for some (bat) species exceeds 90 percent.” Tobin said, if the disturbing trend continues “we may have fewer night time flying predators
to control the insect population, which may impact agriculture, forest, and human health.”
Research published in 2015 suggests the cause for the bats’ high mortality rate is because bats who have contracted White-Nose Syndrome wake up more frequently during hibernation, which forces the bats to burn much-needed fat deposits necessary to survive until spring while food sources are significantly limited.
What has certainly been a turbulent time for the predators on the night’s skies, there is small silver-lining to be seen for some of the bats in the Pacific Northwest, and specifically for the most common to the region: the silver-haired bat.
Silver-haired bats are not immune to the killer fungus, but because they often roost alone and sometimes don’t hibernate at all, they
appear to be more resilient to the deadly fungus.
“Silver-haired bats typically are active through the winter at lower elevations in Washington and so are less vulnerable to (White-Nose Syndrome),” said Tobin.
It is unconfirmed where white-nose syndrome originated. The leading theory suggests it came from Europe, likely introduced by humans – probably cave visitors who may have unknowingly transported the fungus on their clothing. What may be even more concerning than the unknown origin of white-nose syndrome, however, is the fact that a cure has yet to be discovered.
For those concerned about domestic animals and other wildlife, Tobin offered reassurance, confirming that white-nose syndrome only affects species of bats, but other species can spread the disease through contact.
For those interested in facilitating the research efforts of white-nose syndrome, Tobin said they can assist researchers by “reporting bat colonies to the state Department Fish & Wildlife so researchers may establish observation and monitor the
health and population of the colony.”
To report bat colonies for observation, or potential cases of white-nose syndrome, contact the Washington Department of Fish and
Wildlife.

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