MONTPELIER - State and federal wildlife agencies need the assistance of the caving and spelunking community to help limit the spread of a disease that has killed thousands of hibernating bats. The agencies are asking spelunkers to avoid entering caves or mines in Vermont and New York this winter to avoid transferring the disease from cave to cave and to avoid additional stress on hibernating bats.
A new disease of unknown origin, known as white-nose syndrome, has been found in New York and Vermont. Some 8,000 to 11,000 bats died at several locations in New York, the largest die-off of bats due to disease documented in North America.
This year, an unknown number of bats are at risk. A white substance found on the bats' noses has been identified as a fungus and is believed to be associated with the disease, but not necessarily the actual cause of death. Several pathology laboratories are analyzing carcasses to help determine the cause of the bat deaths.
Biologists with the Vermont Fish and Wildlife Department, New York Department of Environmental Conservation, and the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service are working with cavers to develop strategies to address the issue.
"Our primary concern is to limit the disease from spreading further to other caves and mines that have larger numbers of hibernating bats," said State Wildlife Biologist Scott Darling. "Here in Vermont, the disease has been documented in the Morris Cave in Danby and we will be checking other caves and mines."
Little brown bats are sustaining the largest number of deaths, but northern long-eared, eastern pipistrelle and Indiana bats are also dying.
"We know that Indiana bats, a species protected by the federal Endangered Species Act, have been affected in New York, and we are concerned about them in Vermont," according to biologist Susi von Oettingen of the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service's Northeast Region.
Bat biologists from throughout the Northeast are evaluating strategies to monitor the presence of the disease and the need to collect specimens for laboratory analyses. Biologists are being very cautious, however, that they do not spread the disease in the process.
Bat populations are particularly vulnerable during hibernation as they congregate in large numbers in isolated caves, making them susceptible to disturbance or disease. Because these bats then migrate as far as hundreds of miles to their summer range, impacts to hibernating bats can have significant implications for bats throughout the Northeast.
Bats from a cave in Dorset have been documented traveling as far as Rhode Island and Cape Cod.
Individuals should not handle bats. If you come across live or dead bats with white-nose syndrome, contact your state wildlife agency.