The federal government this week unveiled a national plan to better coordinate efforts among state and federal agencies that are fighting the spread of a disease that has wiped out more than a million bats in the eastern United States.
The fungus, called white-nose syndrome because of the white powdery substance that appears on infected bats' ears, nose and wing membranes, was first detected in a cave near Albany, N.Y., in 2007 and has since spread to 17 other states, as well as four Canadian provinces.
The disease attacks bats when they are hibernating in caves and abandoned mines during the winter months. The fungus disrupts their hibernation behavior, causing them to burn up their limited energy supplies. In effect, the bats end up starving to death.
The new national plan is designed to provide a roadmap for agencies and researchers to follow so they can more easily share resources and information on the disease.
Scientists are worried because of the quick spread of the disease and the high mortality rate among hibernating species of bats, including several species that are already endangered, such as Indiana, gray and Virginia big-eared bat.
Experts are just starting to learn more about the important role bats play in the ecosystem. A recent analysis in Science magazine's Policy Forum showed that insect-eating bats save the U.S. agriculture industry at least $3 billion a year in pest control services.
The new plan notes that an abrupt drop in bat populations "could lead to increased numbers of insect pests resulting in damage to forests and agriculture, higher loads of environmental pesticides, and potential public health risks," since bats eat the mosquitoes that carry such diseases as West Nile virus.
"This national plan is an important step to protect the bat population ... throughout the country," Sen. Frank Lautenberg, D-N.J., said in a statement. "The spread of white-nose syndrome could have dangerous environmental and economic repercussions if we don't act now to stop it."
Lautenberg helped secure nearly $2 million in white-nose research in the fiscal 2010 budget.
The plan calls for federal agencies to provide cross-border coordination and assistance among state agencies with research, surveillance, disease management, diagnostic testing and education, as well as funding for states' efforts to combat the disease.
The Interior Department has already spent nearly $11 million on the disease, including $3 million to fund research. Though scientists still know very little about how white-nose syndrome spreads or how to stop it, researchers working with the U.S. Geological Survey have identified a fungus new to science, called Geomyces destructans, as the presumed cause of the disease.
Federal agencies have also worked to develop decontamination protocols to reduce the spread of the fungus, which some experts think can be spread by humans who enter infected caves and then fail to clean their clothing or equipment before entering an unaffected cave. Some federally controlled caves have been closed to visitors as a result.
(c) 2011, North Jersey Media Group Inc.
Visit The Record, www.northjersey.com.
Distributed by McClatchy-Tribune Information Services.