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White-nose syndrome a silent killer of bats

Submitted Photo White-nose syndrome has killed over 90% of the bat population across a wide range in North America. The disease is present in North Dakota.

They are generally not very likeable. Creepy even, but bats, like them or not, are in serious trouble. Some estimates place the loss of bats in fewer than 10 years at 90%.

The reason? White-nose syndrome.

“Currently the whole state of North Dakota is considered within the white-nose range,” said Patrick Isakson, North Dakota Game and Fish Department conservation biologist. “It goes as far west as central Montana as the disease keeps moving west.”

White-nose syndrome is a fungal disease that devastates hibernating bats. White-nose syndrome results in dehydration and starvation of bats. It is a very efficient killer with no known cure. Uncontrolled, it has the potential to erase bats entirely.

“We found the fungus on a live bat in 2019 at the Knife River Indian Village and in Medora in 2020. Quite a few died out,” said Isakson. “We are trying to get a handle on what our population is now and in the future.”

Understandably, little or no research had been done on bats in North Dakota until white-nose syndrome became a concern. Game and Fish had to quickly ramp up efforts to find hibernating bats and learn more about them and white-nose syndrome.

“We have contracted with a professor at North Dakota State University,” said Isakson. “She is sampling a couple of known hibernacular in western North Dakota that we know of. She’ll be sampling this spring, helping us get a tab on what we have left.”

North Dakota is home to 12 different species of bats, 11 of which reside in the Missouri River corridor. One of them, the northern long-eared brown bat, is considered to be endangered because of staggering losses due to white-nose syndrome.

“We are reviewing the little brown bat to see if it warrants being listed,” said Isakson. “Bats are not what we could consider watchable wildlife, although I’m surprised a number of people have called me to ask what’s going on with bats. They’ve noticed less and are concerned.”

While most people cringe at the presence of bats, they are beneficial to the environment. Bats are big insect eaters, particularly mosquitoes. Also, said Isakson, they have a value to the agricultural community, especially when it comes to reducing insect populations in corn. If the loss of bats to white-nose syndrome continues at its present rate, there’s the likelihood that other unwelcome changes will follow.

“When you remove a species from a natural community there’s implications throughout the ecology,” explained Isakson. “They are organic pest control. Nationwide there’s a lot of research to find a way to cure white-nose. There’s been some gains but not to the point where we can stave off spreading at this point.”

It is estimated that bats in the United States save farmers at least $3.7-billion per year in pest control services.

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