Little brown bat hibernating in West Virginia cave with white fungal ring around its muzzle, a symptom of white-nose syndrome. © 2009 by Craig W. Stihler, Ph.D., West Virginia Dept. of Natural Resources.

RICHMOND, Vt.- Mounting evidence that several species of bats have been all but eliminated from the Northeast due to a new disease known as white-nose syndrome prompted a conservation group to send a letter today to Sam Hamilton, the new director of the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, urging that action on the bat epidemic be his first priority.

In the letter, Kierán Suckling, executive director of the national, nonprofit Center for Biological Diversity, wrote: "...while we suspect you are still unpacking boxes in your new office, we feel compelled to spotlight a wildlife emergency of the highest order. This crisis, the bat epidemic known as white-nose syndrome, cannot afford any delay before receiving your focused attention."

The bat disease appears to be caused by a fungus unknown to science before the outbreak was first documented two winters ago in bat caves near Albany, New York. Since then, white-nose syndrome - so named because of the fungal growth around bats' muzzles - has spread to nine states and killed an estimated 1.5 million bats. Bats from New England to West Virginia are now affected by the illness, and scientists fear that this coming winter the syndrome will show up in Kentucky and Tennessee, where some of the largest bat colonies in the world are located.

"Scientists are saying this disease could be on the West Coast in two to three years, at the rate it is spreading," said Mollie Matteson, a wildlife biologist and conservation advocate for the Center in its Richmond, Vermont office. "Some scientists are even warning that under a worst-case scenario, we may lose all bats in North America. Such a tragedy could have disastrous consequences for agriculture and ecosystems because of the role of bats in insect control and pollination."

The Center's letter was sent in response to preliminary reports from bat surveys last winter and this summer, which show many affected bat populations in New England and New York reduced to 10 percent or less of former numbers. The letter also points to the severe lack of funding for research and the absence of a nationwide plan for addressing white-nose syndrome as major impediments to stopping this wildlife crisis. …

With Bat Extinctions Looming, 1.5 Million Dead, Group Asks Feds to Prioritize Saving Bats

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