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Mountain West bats face increasing pressure from deadly fungal infection

Northern long-eared bat with white-nose syndrome
Steven Thomas
National Park Service
Northern long-eared bat with visible symptoms of white-nose syndrome.

News Brief

A westward-spreading fungal infection is decimating yet another bat species that federal officials areproposing to list as endangered.

“The endangered listing basically, under the (Endangered Species) Act, means that the species is in danger of extinction now,” said Georgia Parham, a spokesperson with the Fish and Wildlife Service.

The northern long-eared bat’s range only extends westward to Montana and Wyoming in the Mountain West — but even there, white-nose syndrome is killing them. The bat was previously listed as “threatened,” but its numbers continue to drop.

According to the Fish and Wildlife Service, white-nose syndrome is expected to affect all of the northern long-eared bat’s U.S. range by 2025. WNS has caused estimated declines of 97- 100% of affected northern long-eared bat populations.

This is beyond just this one kind of bat, though. Many other species of hibernating bats around the region could be susceptible to the infection. There have already been cases in cave bats in New Mexico. That’s terrible news given how deadly the infection can be.

A map showing the spread of white-nose syndrome from the East Coast to the West over the last few decades

One study found that the infection reduced three bat species' populations by more than 90% within just seven years of first detecting WNS.

Jonathan Reichard is a white-nose syndrome expert with the Fish and Wildlife Service. He hopes the disease slows down in the mountains because the bats in those areas may not travel as long of distances through the rough terrain.

“We still expect it to be moving through that area, but it might just happen at a much slower pace,” he said.

Reichard said experts aren’t sure yet how the infection will affect many of the bat species in the Mountain West, partially because the disease is newer to the area, and partially because researchers haven’t found many large winter colonies in the region to keep track of the populations.

“The large winter colonies just aren’t found. They’re either absent or they’re so hidden that we don’t see them. Not for lack of trying, just for lack of finding,” he said.

Reichard said vaccines and treatments are being developed to protect bats from the infection, and that there are also nationwideand international efforts to keep an eye out for the spread of the disease (including the North American Bat Monitoring Program, based in Fort Collins, Colo.).

Bats are an important part of the ecosystem, helping control pest populations, which can in turn stem diseases and help agriculture. If you see dead bats, or bats behaving strangely, contact your state wildlife officials.

To comment on the proposal to list the species as endangered, go here.

This story was produced by the Mountain West News Bureau, a collaboration between Wyoming Public Media, Boise State Public Radio in Idaho, KUNR in Nevada, the O'Connor Center for the Rocky Mountain West in Montana, KUNC in Colorado, KUNM in New Mexico, with support from affiliate stations across the region. Funding for the Mountain West News Bureau is provided in part by the Corporation for Public Broadcasting.

Madelyn Beck was Boise State Public Radio's regional reporter with the Mountain West News Bureau.

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