The Center for Biological Diversity on Wednesday, petitioned the White House Council on Environmental Quality to take immediate action to stem the spread of white-nose syndrome, a rapidly-spreading disease that has killed nearly seven million bats across the eastern United States and is quickly moving west. The Center urged the council to direct federal land management agencies to take measures to prevent the further spread of the disease, which in just six years has expanded from a single cave in upstate New York to affect bats in 19 states and four Canadian provinces.
“The loss of bats to white-nose syndrome is an unprecedented natural disaster that will have real financial consequences for many Americans,” said Mollie Matteson, conservation advocate for the Center. “Not only do some bats species face extinction, but American farmers stand to lose an estimated $22 billion in lost insect-eating services that bats provide. This crisis is deepening by the day and it’s time for the highest reaches of our government to take action.”
The Center's petition asks the White House to direct federal land management agencies — including the U.S. Forest Service, Bureau of Land Management and National Park Service, which collectively manage millions of acres across the United States — to enact consistent regulations limiting human entry to caves on public lands in order to prevent spread of the disease to the western United States and other areas.
Those steps are needed because white-nose syndrome has been found to be caused by a newly described fungus, aptly named Geomyces destructans, that is easily carried on the shoes, clothes or gear of any person visiting contaminated caves and is very likely being spread by people. Indeed, all evidence indicates that the disease was recently and inadvertently introduced to North America by a cave visitor on both continents. Recognizing these realities, some agencies have enacted cave closures and decontamination procedures, but many have not, including most federal land management agencies in the West, where the disease has not yet spread and can still be prevented.
“Despite the severity and rapid spread of this disease, the response from federal land managers has been inconsistent and in many cases lackluster,” said Ms. Matteson. “This crisis begs a comprehensive response that only the White House can provide.”
Already this winter, white-nose syndrome has spread to new areas in the Southeast and Midwest, showing up for the first time in Missouri, Alabama and Delaware and in more areas in Indiana, Kentucky and Ohio. Bats also transmit the fungus, but they are not capable of migrations longer than a few hundred miles. Concern about long-distance transport of the fungus by people has prompted calls by scientists, including those with the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service and the U.S. Geological Survey, for restrictions on all but essential access to bat caves. In 2010, the Center petitioned federal agencies to enact comprehensive restrictions on nonessential human access to caves, but those restrictions have not been enacted in many areas.
The Center is calling on President Barack Obama's closest environmental leaders, housed at the Council on Environmental Quality, to bring federal agencies together to enact consistent bat cave restrictions on federal lands, require proper decontamination procedures for anyone entering caves, and initiate inventories of caves and bats on federal lands where little is presently known about them.
Nine species of bat have been found with the white-nose fungus, and of these, six species have experienced mortality, several of them at rates approaching 100 percent in affected caves. Biologists fear that several bat species, including the once-common little brown bat, may soon become extinct. Scientists do not yet have an effective treatment; the only known way to contain the spread of white-nose is to reduce the risk of human transport of the fungus by closing caves to nonessential access and requiring decontamination procedures of those still entering caves.
For more information, visit SaveOurBats.org.