By: The Center for Biological Diversity
A lethal bat disease sweeping across North America has been discovered for the first time in Georgia, state and federal officials announced today. The announcement comes one day after the disease was reported in South Carolina. White-nose syndrome, a fatal fungal disease in bats, has now spread to 22 states and 5 Canadian provinces over the past seven years. This most recent discovery of the disease was made at two caves in Dade County, Ga. — one in the Chickamauga and Chattanooga National Military Park, operated by the National Park Service, and the other at Cloudland Canyon State Park. Last year the bat disease was documented on the Tennessee side of the same national military park.
“White-nose syndrome’s attack on North American bats is continuing unabated,” said Mollie Matteson, a bat specialist at the Center for Biological Diversity. “Unfortunately, despite the disease’s relentless push across the country, the response of state and federal wildlife agencies has been astonishingly passive.”
There is no cure for white-nose syndrome, which is caused by an introduced fungus, almost certainly from Europe, where the fungus is found but does not make bats sick. Scientists have collected compelling evidence that the fungus was brought to North America by cave visitors.
The Center has, for years, called for the closure of publicly owned caves to people in all but scientific or emergency circumstances, and for the government to recommend that landowners restrict recreationists’ access to their caves. In today’s announcement Georgia and federal officials underscored the potential for fungal spores to be carried by people from cave to cave. Despite this the state will not close its caves to recreational access, but merely ask cavers to reduce their visits to Georgia caves. Caves on U.S. Forest Service and National Park Service lands in Georgia have been closed to nonessential access since 2009.
“It’s chillingly clear that the next frontier for this devastating disease is the western United States and the many, many bat species that live there,” said Matteson. “But even now, our government officials keep allowing cave visitors to come and go in most western caves on federal land — as though nothing has changed in the past seven years. That needs to stop, or bat populations across the West may crash.”
The epidemic’s impacts are not limited to bats. Scientists estimate that the value of bug-eating bats to U.S. farmers ranges from $3 billion to $53 billion per year. Bats eat enormous quantities of moths, beetles, mosquitoes and other insects, and their absence could make farmers and others decide to use greater quantities of expensive, and potentially harmful, pesticides.