For Immediate Release, August 24, 2009
Contact: Mollie Matteson, Center for Biological Diversity, (802) 434-2388 (office); (802) 318-1487 (cell)
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.
“The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service is clearly the most appropriate agency to take the lead in addressing what is rapidly becoming a national wildlife disaster,” Suckling’s letter went on to say. “Yet the agency has still not created a dedicated, full-time position for a white-nose syndrome coordinator, nor has it requested funds adequate to address the growing crisis.”
The Center called for the Fish and Wildlife Service to create a national white-nose syndrome plan that includes research priorities, a system for coordination with other federal and state agencies, a budget, and a plan for protecting bats, both those already affected as well as populations not yet infected.
Congress has thus far responded to pleas for additional funding from scientists and conservation groups by appropriating $500,000 for white-nose syndrome monitoring. This is only 10 percent of what biologists, testifying at congressional hearings earlier this year, said was needed. The Fish and Wildlife Service itself has not submitted a funding request for the disease.
Suckling warned in his letter to Director Hamilton that: “Crucial research projects that could further our understanding of the disease and the mechanism by which it spreads are not happening, due to lack of resources. Without this knowledge, there’s little chance we’ll discover a way to stop the disease in time to save species from extinction.“
Read the Center’s letter to Director Hamilton here.
The Center for Biological Diversity is a national, nonprofit conservation organization with more than 225,000 members and online activists dedicated to the protection of endangered species and wild places.