What does it mean that more than a million bats have been killed by White-nose Syndrome, that entire populations have been virtually wiped out, that extinctions are likely if solutions are not found? Clearly, losing these bats will have enormous impacts on ecosystems around the continent.
But there is another cost – an often-crushing emotional toll on those who do battle with this unprecedented disaster day after day. These scientists and wildlife managers, many of whom have devoted a lifetime to studying and protecting these remarkable creatures, watch with broken hearts as an unimaginable plague spreads across North America. Yet somehow, they still get up every morning and rejoin the fight. And White-nose Syndrome keeps moving faster and farther each winter.
“Many of these bats that are dying, they’re like old friends,” says Professor Tom Kunz of Boston University, who has studied New England bats since 1964. “I have studied them and watched them for years. I banded a lot of them. Standing there [amid countless WNS-killed bats of a Vermont cave], I was literally almost in tears. It’s devastating – one of the most disheartening experiences I’ve ever had.”
Across the continent, bat biologist Pat Ormsbee of the U.S. Forest Service in Oregon, like many of her West Coast colleagues, waits and worries. “If the trends keep going the way they are, WNS is inevitable [in the West]. In my WNS presentations, I show a picture of a tsunami hitting a quiet beach. It feels like that.”
Scott Darling, bat biologist for the Fish and Wildlife Department of Vermont, the second state hammered by WNS, says bats are noticeably rare now. WNS, he said, “means for us in Vermont the loss of some of the most fascinating animals on our landscape. These are animals that have been in places like Aeolus Cave for 10,000 years. And we lost them. We lost them on my watch. That’s what hurts the most. I was responsible for the conservation of the bats of Vermont.”
The fact that there is absolutely nothing Darling could have done to change that outcome offers little comfort.
“The scope is staggering,” says DeeAnn Reeder of Bucknell University in Lewisburg, Pennsylvania. “If you scream that the sky is falling, no one listens to you. But for over 20 species of North American hibernating bats, the sky is literally falling. Whatever our worst-case scenario is, WNS may get that bad.”
How bad? Walk up to Aeolus Cave with Boston University graduate student Jonathan Reichard in January 2009. “As we approached, the snow was packed with scavenger tracks. Bat wings were scattered on the landscape. There was a clearing with tracks of a crawling bat terminating in wing and talon prints of a bird. Bats circling by the cave would crash to the ground and tumble head over heels into the pile of dead bats right in front of the cave. A tufted titmouse scavenged dead bats, eviscerating carcasses just outside the cave. Bats were frozen to ice stalagmites, seemingly having attempted to climb to high ground and to take flight after crashing to the ground.”
Al Hicks, a wildlife biologist with the New York Department of Environmental Conservation, first raised the alarm in 2007, after thousands of dead bats were found in four caves near Albany. Bats at one cave displayed curious white noses. Now, Hicks says, “I will be happy if these species don’t go extinct, if enough can survive to repopulate the landscape.”
And still, like all the rest, he keeps searching desperately for solutions. “The alternative is to sit and wring your hands and do nothing. Then at the end of the day, you haven’t helped. We’re not in the business of throwing in the towel.”