By Beth Daley, Globe Staff
Earlier this month, federal and state biologists met at an abandoned copper mine in Vermont for an annual survey of bats. In previous years they counted at least 900 in a sample. This year, they caught one.
Little brown bat at Greeley Mine, Vermont, with white-nose syndrome in March 2009 (Marvin Moriarty/USFWS)
The reduction is due to a deadly bat illness called white nose syndrome that is decimating bat populations in the Northeast. And federal officials are getting more coordinated to combat it. Earlier this month the US Fish and Wildlife Service’s Northeast Regional Director Marvin Moriarty announced a draft national response plan to better control the spread, minimize the risk and coordinate research and public outreach efforts for the fast-spreading illness.
Researchers have been stunned how quickly the lethal syndrome has spread ever since bats with a fuzzy white fungus on their bodies were first photographed in February 2006 near Albany. Since then, hundreds of thousand of hibernating bats are estimated to have died – if not more – from the illness from Vermont to Virginia. Affected bats can be emaciated and act erratically, flying around during daylight hours in the winter before dying.
Scientists are honing in on the fungus, a cold-loving variety, as a possible cause. Yet bats are dying in such numbers – mortality is higher than 90 percent in some caves and mines – they are deeply concerned about losing too many before a cause or solution can be found.
While several species of bats are affected, U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service estimate the population of endangered Indiana bats in the Service's Northeast Region dropped 30 percent from 2007 to 2009, according to preliminary estimates from the 2009 count of Indiana bats. The Northeast Region has 12 to 13 percent of the Indiana bat population.
The plan, which will go up for public review this winter, will put in place a more formal framework for scientists sharing research and information with each other, educating the public, diagnosing bats, managing the illness and monitoring it. While scores of researchers are working on the projects, white nose has spread so quickly scientists say they need a more coordinated approach.
An environmental group who has been calling for a more organized and formal response said yesterday they were pleased with the effort – but much will be needed to save the bats.
“Getting a plan written is an enormous step forward. Next it has to be implemented, and it needs money. Otherwise, it’ll just be a way to pass time as the bats disappear,’’ said Mollie Matteson, a wildlife biologist and conservation advocate in the Center for Biological Diversity’s Northeast office.
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