A mysterious, fatal disease is stealing North America's bats at a staggering rate.
Scientists just released a new estimate that white-nose syndrome has wiped out nearly 7 million bats in just six years. (Two years ago, the estimate was only 1 million bats.) Most of the bats have been killed in the Northeast, but this deadly disease is clearly marching west, raising the prospect that it could churn through bat populations from coast to coast.
The toll on bats is devastating -- but equally troubling has been the lack of a rapid, national response to what many scientists say is the worst wildlife disease outbreak in our country's history.
If we're going to stem the tide of this deadly outbreak, the Obama administration needs to convene our natural-resource agencies, including the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, National Park Service, Bureau of Land Management, Forest Service and U.S. Geological Survey, to develop a comprehensive, coordinated strategy for understanding exactly how this disease spreads and taking every possible measure to stop it.
So far, federal agencies have yet to respond at a scale matching the magnitude of the crisis. It was heartening to see Congress direct $4 million to white-nose syndrome late last year, and the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service has written a response plan, but the actual implementation has been sluggish.
Now that we know this crisis is far worse than previously thought, we need to move quickly.
The cost of sticking to a lax approach will be steep. Left unchecked, white-nose syndrome could kill millions more bats, drive some species extinct and fuel one of the biggest mass die-offs of wildlife since Europeans arrived on this continent.
That scenario is not far-fetched.
The disease -- which came from Europe and leaves a telltale white fungus around the muzzles of the bats it kills -- was first detected in the United States six years ago in upstate New York. Since then, it has spread into 16 other states and four Canadian provinces. In some caves, it has killed every single bat.
While bats are clearly spreading the fungus themselves, the threat of human transmission to caves where bats live, via contaminated gear and clothing, remains an enormous concern because humans can transport the fungus great distances to entirely new regions. Some federal agencies have taken a step in the right direction -- by closing caves to all-but-essential human travel and requiring decontamination for those entering other caves -- but caves remain open across most of the West. In many cases, the federal agencies charged with managing our extensive public lands don't even know the location of bat caves.
This spotty response to a national crisis falls far short of the urgent, comprehensive approach that's needed. Failing to respond will not only mean a catastrophic loss of bats -- venerable night creatures vital to the wild places they live -- but also significant losses for people and for our economy.
Scientists have estimated that bats save U.S. farmers between $3.7 billion and $53 billion per year on pesticides that did not have to be used on crops like corn, cotton, vegetables and fruit because of the help bats give. Since the bat disease has only recently shown up in the Midwest and South, the full effects of declining bat numbers on these regions, which are more dominated by agriculture than the Northeast, may take some time to show up.
But we shouldn't wait for white-nose syndrome to spread farther. Once it gains a foothold, it'll be almost impossible to stop before it takes a massive toll on our bats -- and very possibly our crops, too.