White-nose syndrome killing bats at alarming rate - WKOW 27: Madison, WI Breaking News, Weather and Sports

White-nose syndrome killing bats at alarming rate

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MADISON (WKOW) -- They're the species that come with several myths, but bats actually help us in more ways than you think. However, scientists are worried after they've seen an unprecedented drop in the bat population due to a disease that's spreading across the state. 

"It's really devastating," said Jennifer Redell, a conservation biologist with the Wisconsin Department of Natural Resources. 

She's talking about the deadly impacts from white-nose syndrome. It's a disease that originates in their habitats. 

"A fungal disease that is caused by a mold or fungus that prefers the cave environment," Redell said. 

The fungus, that infects the bat's skin, was discovered and named in Madison about 10 years ago by Dr. David Blehert, with the U.S. Geological Survey National Wildlife Health Center. A number of bats came from New York at that time that were infected with a fungus that killed them. 

"It disrupts their hibernation and causes them to spend their energy reserve at a time when they otherwise can't go outside and feed," Dr. Blehert explained. 

It means the bats either starve or venture out of their cave, mine, or attic and die from the freezing temperatures. Right now, four of the state's eight species have seen their populations drop dramatically. 

"As of three years ago or so, we had maybe 300,000 to 500,000 bats hibernating statewide. And just over the past couple of winters, we've lost more than half," Redell said. 

She says she's seen a cave that once had 1,000 bats living inside, to come back and find only four of them were still alive. Surveyors found only 16 bats in one Grant County site where the fungus was first detected. That's compared to the 1,200 bats the cave had a couple seasons ago. 

"It's unprecedented. We haven't seen such a dramatic decline in North American wildlife in recorded history," Redell said. 

"Some bat hibernation caves where we've seen the populations just wiped out," Dr. Blehert added. 

It means the chance at you spotting bats this summer has dwindled.

"People that used to stand outside and count bats emerging from their house, have no bats that returned," Redell said. 

It's also bad news from farmers, who combines, save between $600-million and $1.5-billion on pesticides for their crops because the bats eat insects, according to the state's DNR. 

"We may see increases then in those pesticides on the landscape and on our food products and perhaps increases in costs to the customer," Redell added. 

Bats also help out by eating bugs that are a nuisance to people. 

"One single little brown bat can eat between 600 to 1,000 mosquito-sized bugs per hour when they're out at night," Redell said. 

She says although scientists are currently seeking a solution to slow down the spread of the disease, there are things you can do to help. 

"Put up a bat house. Bats are still coming back into neighborhoods," Redell said. "Individual bats are starting to become very important. So, we want to make sure these animals are protected from any direct threat or direct killing."

She also added, if you find that bats are coming back to your attic or shed this summer, those are white-nose survivors. 

"Those are a small, select group of individual bats that have something special and it's really helpful for us when people report those roosts so that we can learn as much as possible about what they've done right," she said. 

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