The Register-Herald, Beckley, West Virginia

Local News

June 17, 2014

Decline of bat population in the state raises concerns

CHARLESTON — Most people have a “duck and cover” relationship with bats, but the flying mammal population’s decline should cause concern among human beings for several reasons.

Bats are a natural “pesticide,” according to Dr. Sheldon Owen, a wildlife specialist with the West Virginia University Extension Service, consuming nationwide more than 600 metric tons of insects each night, typically in two feedings.

So if the bat population continues to decrease significantly, human beings can expect to spend more money on chemical pesticides and suffer a loss of enjoyment in the outdoors, he told the Forestry Management Committee Monday during July legislative interim meetings.

Several factors have played into the bat population’s decline, but none so much as white-nose syndrome, which is now tracked in 38 states and parts of Canada.  

Barbara Douglas with the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service said models suggest the disease will spread throughout the country quickly.

The northern long-eared bat is particularly susceptible to the disease, and is one of several species in West Virginia that have greatly declined in number. The Virginia big-eared bat is not affected by the white-nose syndrome.

The syndrome is caused by a fungal disease that Douglas said is believed to have come from Europe and has caused the loss of more than 5.5 million bats nationally over the last five years.

The disease first showed up in West Virginia in Pendleton County, where caving is a large tourism draw.

Caves have been closed to spelunkers to try to limit the spread of the fungus, which can attach itself to clothing or boots.

Douglas said the northern long-eared bat could be listed as an endangered species and her agency will seek public comment about making that listing.

However, she said, the comment period would not be for yes or no votes, but instead would be for gathering substantial new information.

Already, U.S. Fish and Wildlife has more than 37,000 comments from a variety of sources from the general public to bat biologists.

The bat decline has stabilized over the past few years, she said, so a few bats have survived the fungal outbreak.

Douglas said there is no way to treat the fungus once it’s in the caves and on the bats.

“At this point we do not have a good cure,” she said.

Owen said bats hibernate in caves, but in the summer also use trees for a variety of things, including “maternity wards.” Bats generally like a “cluttered environment” when it comes to forests and can pick insects off of leaves or on the wing.

“Timber harvests can benefit bats, (as they) change the vertical structures of some of our canopies,” Owen said.

— E-mail: ppritt@register-herald.com

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