The death rate among hibernating bats in the region has reached 99 percent over the past three years, according to winter surveys by the N.C. Wildlife Resources Commission and the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service.
In one Haywood County mine, numbers dropped from 4,000 to 55 in only two years — and the disease is spreading. Biologists have now documented white-nose syndrome in Jackson and Cherokee counties for the first time, bringing the total number of counties with populations confirmed or suspected to have white-nose syndrome to 10.
White-nose syndrome is named for the whitish, fuzzy fungus that grows on the noses, wings and ears of bats during winter hibernation. Infected bats wake up more often during hibernation, causing them to burn essential fat reserves and leave the cave in search of food before it is warm enough for them to survive.
The disease has not been detected in tree-roosting bats and does not affect human health. However, the U.S. Geological Service estimates that losing bats in North America could lead to agricultural losses exceeding $3.7 billion annually.
Biologists will continue their long-term efforts to monitor bats in Western North Carolina. This summer, they will use mist-nets to capture and count bats in summer roosts and record bat calls through the N.C. Bat Acoustic Monitoring Program, a citizen-scientist effort to assess the effects of WNS and other threats to bat populations in the mountains over time.
“The Wildlife Commission continues working to understand more about how WNS affects bats, how the disease is spreading, trying to better understand species differences in survival and what we can do to help bats survive this deadly infection,” Graeter said.
Funding for the Commission’s bat and white-nose syndrome research and management comes from U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service grants and the Nongame and Endangered Wildlife Fund, which supports wildlife research, conservation and management for animals that are not hunted and fished.