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Environment | Flora and Fauna

Scientists On the Watch for Bat-Killing Fungus

Little brown bat with white-nose syndrome in Greeley Mine, Vermont

Little brown bat with white-nose syndrome in Greeley Mine, Vermont

Marvin Moriarty/USFWS

The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service is estimating that more than five million bats in the U.S. have died from a fungal infection known as white-nose syndrome. Scientists are hoping to keep the disease from spreading to the Pacific Northwest.

Officials are increasingly worried that the disease tearing through bat colonies in 16 eastern states will spread to caves on public land in the Pacific Northwest. The white powdery fungus destroys the flesh in bats’ wings and causes them to leave winter hibernation in search of food and water. Ultimately, they starve to death.

Scientists believe the disease has only reached caves as as far West as Oklahoma.

Pat Ormsbee is a bat specialist for the U.S. Forest Service and the Bureau of Land Management in Oregon and Washington. She says experts have no idea whether the fungus is already in the Pacific Northwest.

“We’re assuming it’s not here. So far we have not documented large colonies of bats in the West like we have in the East. Most of our wintering bat colonies are fairly small. So, one of the fears is this stuff could show up. These smaller colonies could die and spread this stuff around and we may never know because we’re not getting reports about hundreds to thousands of bats flying out in winter,” says Ornsbee.

Ormsbee said government agencies are instructing cave explorers to clean their gear thoroughly to avoid spreading the fungus.

(This was first reported for OPB News.)

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