Disease Control | News | Pittsburgh | Pittsburgh City Paper

Disease Control

There's still no answer to the question: What is killing hundreds of thousands of bats in the northeastern United States? But help is on the way.

Federal and state governments have teamed up to provide $1.37 million "to support ongoing research and field work into the [white-nose syndrome] enigma," according to a May 7 press release from the Pennsylvania Game Commission.

White-nose syndrome -- named for a mysterious white fungus that appears on the infected bats' muzzles and wings -- has been decimating bat colonies since it first appeared in New York State in 2006. The plague arrived in Pennsylvania last winter. When it strikes, bats wake up mid-hibernation, and then starve to death during the insect-less winter months.

"Right now, we fortunately only have it in four counties," says game commission spokesman Jerry Feaser. Confirmed cases in Pennsylvania have appeared in Centre, Mifflin, Lackawanna and Luzerne counties.

It's not clear what is causing white-nose, but the impact on bats has been tremendous: In some caves, more than 90 percent of bats have died.

The government money comes after members of Congress from 13 states, including Sen. Bob Casey of Pennsylvania, sent a letter to the Secretary of the Interior on May 5. The officials urged the Obama administration "to respond to this crisis" by providing "immediate, emergency" aid.

The congressional delegates said that "over the last two winters over one million hibernating bats have mysteriously died," with confirmed cases of white-nose in much of New England. The condition has recently been reported farther south, into Virginia and West Virginia.

Researchers don't believe that white-nose poses a direct threat to humans. However, the congressional letter argued, "This issue has profound public health, environmental, and economic implications." Bats feed on pests and help control "insects such as mosquitoes, which spread disease, and moths and beetles, which damage crops."

Wildlife experts are also asking the public to take extra precautions, to make sure they aren't accidentally spreading the unknown killer.

"We've asked people not to go into caves in any of the states that are affected or [in] the adjoining states," says Diana Weaver, of the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service. Weaver says the disease appears to be spreading through a "leapfrogging effect": New cases are appearing in caves that are "probably too long a distance for bats, at this time of year, to be flying."

Weaver says that anyone caving in a non-infected state should not use equipment or clothing that might have been exposed to a cave where bats have white-nose. Similarly, Pennsylvania's state agencies are asking private landowners to close caves in which bats hibernate.

"We're looking at private caves, but not the commercial caves," Feaser says. "There's a distinction there."

Most major commercial caves are minimally invasive: Tourists generally don't go very far into caves, and they rarely crawl through tight passageways, thus limiting the points of contact they create. Additionally, Feaser says that some tourism groups are trying to mitigate the risk of spreading infection by providing disinfectant wipes for cavers' shoes.

The game commission is more concerned with people who visit multiple caves or are crawling into deeper passageways, Feaser says -- "the aficionados, so to speak."

Of course, "Most of these guys and gals are conservation-minded," he adds. "They're working with us."