Farmers missing benefits of bug-eating bats

Friday, July 21, 2017

On July 17, 2017, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service announced over $1 million in grants to 37 states and the District of Columbia to help combat white-nose syndrome (WNS), a fungal disease that has killed millions of North American bats in recent years. Funds will help states find ways to prevent the spread of WNS while increasing survival rates of afflicted species.

The grants bring the total funding to states for WNS response over the last eight years to $7 million. This financial support is part of a Service-led, cooperative, international effort involving more than 100 state, federal, tribal, academic and non-profit partners.

“White-nose syndrome has ravaged bat populations in many parts of this nation. Funding from the Service provides state fish and wildlife agencies with critically important support to manage and mitigate the spread of the disease to new areas of the country,” said Nick Wiley, President of the Association of Fish and Wildlife Agencies and Executive Director of the Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission. “The Association greatly appreciates the Service’s role in coordinating a national response to white-nose syndrome and the funding support for state responses to this wildlife disease crisis.”

First discovered in New York in the winter of 2006-2007, the fungus has now spread to 33 states and five Canadian provinces and infects eight of the top 10 agricultural producing states. Insect-eating bats keep agricultural pest populations down, saving farmers at least $3.7 billion per year in lost crop revenue and preventing the need for spraying costly toxic chemicals. Some farmers install “bat box” homes to increase the number of bats protecting their crops. “Bats are beneficial in many ways,” said Jeremy Coleman, National White-nose Syndrome Coordinator for the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service. “While state natural resource agencies are on the front lines of bat conservation, many have limited options for responding to this devastating disease without these funds. Activities supported by state WNS grants have been critical to the national response.”

For example, Alabama has no full-time staff dedicated to bat conservation. With the WNS grants, however, biologists have contributed to the national understanding of WNS by documenting the disease in a new species (the southeastern bat) for the first time this year. The biologists also discovered a large hibernation site for the federally endangered Indiana bat and surveyed the most important hibernation area in the world for another endangered species, the gray bat.

Biologists in Tennessee are working year round in an effort to better understand how WNS is affecting multiple species of bats across the landscape. “Receiving the maximum amount will enable TWRA to preform numerous tasks over the next year. A portion of the funding will be used to purchase much needed equipment for biologists performing annual winter monitoring surveys across the state and to continue summer monitoring and occurrence surveys” said Josh Campbell, TWRA’s Region II Biodiversity Coordinator, “Securing annual WNS funds provided by the USFWS is critical as it allows us to replace equipment damaged by repetitive decontamination during winter monitoring, and to purchase equipment, such as radio transmitters, acoustic monitoring devices, mist nets, etc., used by our biologists implementing monitoring work for bats. Monitoring and occurrence work during the summer has become just as critical during the summer as we are seeing the impacts of WNS to our bats on the summer landscape across the state.”

In addition to developing science-based protocols and guidance for land management agencies and other partners to slow the transmission of WNS, the Service has funded many research projects to understand the disease and support sound, effective management responses, including the application of disease treatments. Priorities this year include coordination and research for WNS treatment trials in collaboration with the Bats for the Future Fund, along with bat monitoring, response planning and conservation actions.