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April 2011

Natural Disaster

Has time run out for Adirondack bats?

When I first started prowling through bat caves and summer nesting grounds in the Adirondacks with Department of Environmental Conservation senior wildlife biologist Al Hicks a decade ago, the story he was telling was a hopeful one. Populations were booming and even en­dangered Indiana bats had staged a re­markable comeback.

In 2000 we hiked the dusk woods near Port Henry, listening to the burble of radio transmitters as Hicks tracked the an­imals. “Oh! Did you hear that?” he asked, sounding like a proud father, as a fluttering shape whispered past. “There he goes. Did you see it? That was him!”

My impression then was that the natural world is incredibly resilient, especially in a part of the Northeast where habitat loss has been sharply reduced by environmental regulation. But eight years later, the first time I pulled on a white Ty­vek biohazard suit in a snowy field outside Albany, the mood had changed.

Down below, in the shadows, a world was dying. “Whatever the heck you do, don’t hit your head in here,” Hicks said, as we picked our way through the wet crumbly hole of an old mine.

On that wintry morning “white-nose syndrome” was still a complete mystery. The year before, people in the capital region had begun noticing bats behaving oddly, flying around during the daytime in midwinter, dropping dead in snowbanks. A researcher would later find a photograph of an infected bat in Hailes Cave, in Voorheesville, taken in 2006, the earliest recorded sign of the disease.

More troubling yet, the ailment—a bacteria? a parasite? a rabies outbreak?—ap­peared to be spreading fast, sickening animals in caves throughout the southern Adirondacks and the Champlain Valley. It was Hicks’s job to find out what was going on.

A veteran with the Department of En­vironmental Conservation (DEC), he had been exploring these caves for de­cades, keeping a meticulous tally of bat numbers and species, compiling an almost obsessive photographic record of their wintering sites. By 2008 many of his favorite haunts had already begun turning into tombs. We wore “hot zone” suits because of fears that the disease, like rabies, might transmit to humans.

It turns out it doesn’t—a rare stroke of good luck. But bats were proving to be more vulnerable than anyone could have imagined. Hicks played his head lamp expertly over the low ceiling until he spotted a half-dozen animals the size and texture of a child’s felt glove.

“Seven little brown bats here and four of them have the ‘white nose’ on them,” he whispered. His face was hidden by a respirator, but I could hear the disappointment. “So this is a new in­fected site.”

In a matter of months the disease, named for the telltale sugary crust that ap­­­pears on the animals’ snouts and wings, would nearly eradicate this once-vibrant colony. “If we have the high mortality rates that we’ve seen so far, we could potentially lose them all,” Hicks said. “The worst-case scenario would be that this—whatever it is—is spread from bat to bat.”

That’s exactly what happened. In the years since that bitter-cold day, the bat plague moved with devastating speed from a handful of infected caves in up­state New York, spreading to most of the hibernacula in the eastern United States and Canada, including the most important wintering sites in the Adirondack Park.

At times, white-nose syndrome has moved with the ferocity of something out of a science-fiction novel. “The disease spread very, very quickly last winter,” Hicks told me recently. “It went from be­ing on the margins of West Virginia and the next year was found as far out as Oklahoma.”

There was hope early on that some bats and some hibernacula in the Adirondacks might prove more resilient, but those hopes were dashed when the DEC released its latest survey numbers in No­vember 2010. “Caves and mines that avoided infection in the early years of the disease, perhaps by chance, are now in­fected,” reported acting DEC Commis­sioner Peter Iwanowicz.

Caves inside the Adirondack Park alone have lost tens of thousands of animals. In the old graphite mine in Hague, near Lake George, the population of little brown bats plummeted from 185,000 to just 2,000 surviving animals. Two species at the site—northern bats and endangered Indiana bats—were completely wiped out. A third species, the tri-colored bat, had been reduced to a single, lonely holdout.

Across the Adirondacks 90 percent of the animals in infected caves have died. To put that in context, the Black Death that devastated human communities in Europe during the 1300s only killed between 30 and 70 percent of the people it infected. “The case of a disease, of an outbreak like this for an animal—I’ve never professionally come across it,” said Susi von Oettingen, an endangered spe­cies biologist with the U.S. Fish & Wild­life Service (USFWS).

“We’re trying to put the pieces together into something that makes sense,” agreed Kim Miller, with the National Wildlife Health Center, in Madison, Wis­consin. “When it’s something new and different, it just takes a while.”
Scientists have made significant pro­gress. A few months after my first trip into an infected cave, Hicks and I were ex­ploring the abandoned iron mine near Port Henry on the day when he received confirmation that the ailment is a new and virulent type of fungus.

“The bats’ bodies are attacking the fungus and sloughing it off,” he told me. “But in the process, they’re destroying their wing membranes so they can’t fly—or they fly so poorly that they can’t feed.”

The genetic fingerprint of the fungus suggests that it likely originated in a cave in Europe. Some biologists are convinced that the outbreak is another “invasive” organism, possibly carried to New York State by recreational spelunkers who failed to properly clean their gear. “There are references to a similar fungus in Europe dating back to the early 1980s,” said David Blehert, with the National Wildlife Health Center. “That suggests that there could have been an introduction into the U.S.”

In March 2009 the USFWS began closing caves on public land nationwide—a controversial decision among cavers—though many privately owned caves have remained open. Meanwhile, field re­searchers and laboratories across the country fanned out, searching for some way to combat the fungus, or at least slow its spread.

There was a growing sense in the scientific community that time was running out. That winter, I stood with Hicks in Vermont’s Aeolus Cave, one of the big­gest hibernacula in the U.S. The floor was carpeted with tens of thousands of dead bats. “They’re piled up two, three, four deep,” he said. “If this is what we can expect to see across North America for all our bats, they don’t have long.”

The crisis was so dire that it attracted some of the top bat researchers in the world to the Adirondacks. In summer 2009 I stood outside a Methodist church in Willsboro, just above the bank of the Boquet River, with Brock Fenton, from the University of Western Ontario. A member of the congregation had notified the DEC that there appeared to be a remnant population still using the attic as a summer colony.

“The sign on the front of the church says 18-something,” Fenton said. “So probably not long after that the bats started using this place.” We squeezed up through a hatchway into a steaming hot crawl space stuffed and stinking with bat guano.

“See the formations growing here?” he asked. “They’re made from crystallized bat urine. So this is obviously a place where there have been a lot of bats.”

His crew found live animals, taking blood samples and using daubs of glue to fit some of the bats with tiny radio transmitters. The goal was to learn more about how the disease is spreading so fast. “A big unanswered question is, do bats just catch white-nose syndrome in their winter hibernation sites? Or can they spread it in here? We don’t have the answer to that yet,” he added.

Like Hicks, Fenton was baffled by the carnage wreaked by the epidemic in such a short time. “There are so few left,” he told me. “Unless something changes, the little brown bat will be extirpated in the Northeast in the next 10 years. That’s unbelievable, right?”

Only a few years ago little brown bats were the most common variety in the Northeast. They were likely the animals you would see flitting over your deck on a summer evening or hunting bugs over your lawn. Given that they eat up to half their body weight in flies, moths and mosquitoes each night, bats help keep insect populations under control.

As the magnitude of white-nose syndrome became clear, some environmentalists began criticizing state and federal officials for not responding quickly enough. They point out that federal funding for academic work and field programs is still scarce. Last year the DEC gave early retirement to its two top wildlife biologists, including Hicks.

“We’re waiting for the feds to come up with resources to make this happen,” he said. “I’m not too hopeful that we’ll have much money [in 2011].” According to Hicks, red tape and rules governing laboratory experiments on animals have also slowed research efforts.

“They say, ‘Go through the process,’ but the process takes months and we’re trying to keep this species from going ex­tinct,” Hicks said.

In December 2010 a coalition of academic and green groups began pressuring the USFWS to give the little brown bat a new level of endangered-species protection, which could mean sweeping changes to the timberlands and caves where the surviving animals live. “The little brown bat desperately needs protection,” argued Mollie Matteson, conservation advocate for the Center for Biological Diversity, in Vermont. “Losing this species would be a tragedy that would have disastrous consequences for people and other wildlife,” she added.

The news isn’t all bleak. In September 2010 New York’s health department an­nounced that it had identified “safe chemicals” similar to those used to treat human fungal infections such as athlete’s foot, which were found to be “highly effective” against white-nose syndrome in a laboratory setting.

But even if more tests confirm that the treatment works, scientists still aren’t sure how to apply it to infected bats in the wild. They also worry that the animals could get sick again when they return to contaminated caves or summer colonies. What’s certain, according to Al Hicks, is that something has to be done very soon if Adirondack bats are to survive.

“We have a number of small sites in the park where the bats have already disappeared completely,” he said. “There are others on the brink.”

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