CHILTON (WKOW) -- They've long been depicted as mysterious creatures of the night, invoking fear.
But the bat is vital to our environment and now its survival is at risk.
"White-nose syndrome is a disease that affects hibernating bat populations," says Paul White with the Wisconsin Department of Natural Resources. "5.5 to 6 million bats have died since early 2006, 2007 when the disease was first found."
Now white-nose syndrome threatens Wisconsin.
27 News is digging deeper and ventured underground to investigate.
Kasey Fiske with the Wisconsin Speleological Society took us through a cave where bats hibernate at Ledge View Nature Center in Chilton.
Those bats aren't affected by the fungus, but white-nose was found at a site in Grant County that's now off-limits.
White says the fungus, "Causes them to wake up more frequently and they're leaving the hibernation site in the middle of winter when insects aren't available and unfortunately they're dying on the landscape."
He says the northern long-eared bat is especially vulnerable to the disease.
There's a proposal to put it on the endangered species list, but some lawmakers, like U.S. Senator Ron Johnson, are against it. He says, "It could cause the cessation of all logging activity and timber harvest in Wisconsin."
Bats roost in trees during the summer and hibernate in caves in the winter.
The northern long-eared is on the state threatened list, but a federal designation could restrict where loggers work.
"If you impact the logging industry in such a great extent it hurts the entire economy," says Johnson.
Steve Hubbard with the DNR says Wisconsin has been the number one paper making state in the nation for more than 50 years.
The overall value of products that Wisconsin companies produce in the forest products industry is $22.9 billion.
So Hubbard estimates billions of dollars could be lost if the northern long-eared bat is put on the endangered species list and logging is restricted.
The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service is working with stakeholders and the DNR to collect information before making a decision.
"If they do decide to list it, to certainly write the rules in terms of habitat so it doesn't prevent economic use of the forests," says Johnson.
White says of the Wildlife Service, "It's contacting all 39 states that this range, that the northern long-eared bat resides in, finding out the population information, the trends, up or down. Of the 39 states, 25 of those states have white-nose syndrome."
Protecting the bats is such a concern, that even tourist attractions around the state, like Ledge View, have to take extra precautions to keep the fungus from spreading.
"If you've been in other caves they'll make you remove, especially if you have the same clothing on , you'll have to change your clothes," says Fiske.
A single bat can eat 500 to 1,000 insects an hour.
That provides a huge agricultural benefit in protecting crops.
"It's anywhere from $658 million to $1.5 billion that bats provide as far as an economic value to the states," says White.
He hopes the bat's stigma as an animal to be feared is broken and some common ground is discovered to protect it, without hurting the state's economy.
"They're just pretty amazing creatures."
The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service will make its final decision in April 2015 on whether to put the bat on the endangered species list.
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