Even as state and federal agencies expand efforts to slow its spread, white-nose syndrome in bats is spreading at an alarming rate and quickly approaching the Big South Fork National River & Recreation Area.
A mysterious disease first discovered in New York in late 2006, white-nose syndrome has already killed an estimated five million bats, according to the U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service.
Just seven years after its initial discovery by a spelunker who was photographing bats, WNS has now been confirmed in 21 U.S. states. The mysterious disease is now prevalent in Tennessee, particularly along the Cumberland Plateau.
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[s2If current_user_can(access_s2member_level1)]According to the Tennessee Wildlife Resources Agency, WNS has been found in 33 counties across the state, 18 of those along or adjacent to the plateau. The disease was confirmed in 21 of those 33 counties in the last two years. Last month, the state confirmed the presence of WNS in Cannon, Jackson, Overton and Sequatchie counties.
While a case of WNS has not yet been found in Scott County, it has been found in Campbell County and Fentress County. In Fentress County, it was discovered in a cave along the Wolf River.
While there is much researchers do not know about white-nose syndrome, including how it kills bats or what causes it, it is known that the disease prompts the growth of a white fungus on the muzzle, ears and wings of affected bats. Once a cave is infected, as much as 90 percent of the cave’s bat colony is killed by the disease.
The U.S.F.W.S. has spent millions of dollars combatting the disease, but has yet to slow its spread. Last month, the Tennessee Fish & Wildlife Commission voted to keep all caves on state-owned property in Tennessee closed for a fifth consecutive year. The state first closed its caves in 2009, at the urging of the U.S.F.W.S. The closure also includes sink holes, tunnels and deep mines on state-owned wildlife management areas, such as the North Cumberland WMA in eastern Scott County.
The National Park Service has also joined the effort, along with the Tennessee Valley Authority, closing all caves on property it owns.
While white-nosed syndrome does not appear to be detrimental to humans, according to researchers, it is devastating bat populations in infested areas. Bats are voracious feeders of insects, and their preferred diets include some of the most damaging agricultural pests. Some species of bats pollinate plants, as well, while fruit-eating bats are responsible for dispersing seeds.
The Big South Fork National River & Recreation Area will host a 45-minute educational program on the white-nose syndrome Saturday evening at Blue Heron in McCreary County, Ky. BSF ranger Alan Bowlin will lead the discussion on such topics as the WNS’s impact on bat populations, how to spot infected bats and what to do about it. The program begins at 7:30 p.m.[/s2If]