Assigning a dollar value to nature is a complex undertaking, but it's often worth the effort. "Such numbers can show how much our human economy depends on nature's indiscernible economy," says an editorial in The New York Times. "Take bats. A study in Science magazine reveals just how important they are to American agriculture."
Each night, the editorial noted, countless bats consume great quantities of insects, including many that attack farm crops. A team of scientists previously calculated how much more money cotton farmers in one region of south-central Texas would spend on pesticides if bats weren't present, The Times reported. That study concluded that bats save cotton farmers between $12 and $173 an acre annually.
"Extrapolating from those numbers," the editorial said, "they estimated that bats save American farmers somewhere between $3.7 billion and $54 billion a year, most likely about $22.9 billion."
No one notices these "huge savings ... as long as bats flourish. But bat populations are severely threatened." The newspaper noted that even one of the most common species, the little brown bat is being decimated by a fungal disease called White-nose Syndrome, putting those agricultural savings at risk.
The Times said that in 2010, agencies within the U.S. Interior Department spent $6.3 million to study White-nose Syndrome and search for ways to slow its devastating spread.
Those funds, taken from other programs, were far from sufficient. "What's needed now," concluded the influential newspaper, "is financing specifically allocated to staff continuous bat research. The Interior Department should not have to borrow from itself to protect these creatures that are so important to American agriculture.
"We know all of the talk in Washington these days is about cutting, but spending a little more now could save us a fortune later."
The authors of this study are Dr. Justin Boyles of the University of Pretoria in South Africa; Dr. Paul Cryan of the U.S. Geological Survey in Colorado; Dr. Gary McCracken of the University of Tennessee, a member of Bat Conservation International's Board of Trustees; and Dr. Thomas Kunz of Boston University, a member of BCI's Science Advisory Committee.