White-nose syndrome still threatens New York bats

This bat has visible symptoms of white-nose syndrome. (Photo provided — Larry Master, Mastermages.org)

The state Department of Environmental Conservation is reminding the public to stay out of caves and mines where bats are spending the winter as a disease continues to threaten already decimated bat populations.

Bats in New York, especially the Indiana and northern long-eared bat, have been hit particularly hard by white-nose syndrome, with the DEC saying that more than 90 percent of northern long-eared bats have been wiped out.

“Two species of bats are currently protected under federal and state endangered species law. The Indiana bat, which is sparsely distributed across New York, is a federally endangered bat listed before white-nose syndrome began impacting bat populations,” the DEC wrote in a press release. “The northern long-eared bat is protected as a threatened species under federal and New York State Endangered Species law.

“The current population for this formerly common bat is approximately one percent of its previous size, making the species the most severely impacted by white-nose syndrome. Nonetheless, northern long-eared bats are still widely distributed in New York. Their presence is documented in most of the 100 or so caves and mines that serve as bat hibernation sites in the state.”

The DEC said that from Oct. 1 through April 30 each year, anyone who enters a bat hibernation site can be subject to prosecution.

“All posted notices restricting the use of caves and mines should be followed. If New Yorkers or visitors encounter hibernating bats while underground, DEC encourages them to leave the area as quickly and quietly as possible,” the DEC said. “When bats are disturbed during hibernation it forces them to raise their body temperature, depleting their fat reserves. This stored fat is the only source of energy available to the bats until the weather warms in spring.”

Since the bats are protected by both the state and federal governments, the DEC has rules in place to prevent larger disturbances as well. While humans entering wintering sites — known as hibernacula — can harm the bats, so can activity outside of the hibernating areas.

“Because the state endangered species law and its implementing regulations require consideration of impacts to occupied habitat of listed species, the Department is requiring additional conditions on tree cutting in order to protect any bats that may be roosting in the trees in the vicinity of the hibernacula and documented summer occurrences,” the DEC says on its long-eared bat protection page.

According to the DEC, northern long-eared bats live in most of Essex County, with confirmed populations in parts of Franklin and Clinton counties as well.

White-nose syndrome

“The most obvious symptom associated with the die-off is a white fungus encircling the noses of some of the bats. This has led to the name ‘white-nose syndrome,’ which is actually a collection of related symptoms, including a fungus,” the DEC says of the disease. “It is not clear how this fungus alone can cause bats to die. However, impacted bats deplete their fat reserves months before their normal springtime emergence from hibernation, and starve to death as a result.

“Bat populations are particularly vulnerable during hibernation. They congregate in large numbers in caves, in clusters of 300 individuals per square foot in some locations, making them susceptible to disturbance or disease. The vast majority of the hundreds of thousands of bats known to hibernate in New York do so in just five caves and mines. Because bats migrate hundreds of miles to their summer range, the impacts of white-nose syndrome are expected to have significant implications for bats throughout the Northeast.”

The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service’s (USFWS) White-nose Syndrome Response Team says that white-nose syndrome was fist discovered near Albany in 2007, but notes that some spelunkers had photographed bats with white patches the year before.

“There is no cure for white-nose syndrome, but scientists from all over the world are working together to study the disease, how it spreads and infects bats and what we can do to control it,” the USFWS says. “Several experimental treatments, including a vaccine and making changes to bat habitats, are in progress and will hopefully lead to increased survival of bats from this devastating disease.”

The USFWS says that people can help bats by building a bat box, planting a pollinator garden and reducing disturbance to their habitat.

For more information on white-nose syndrome, go to www.whitenosesyndrome.org.