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Research focuses on bats at Idaho National Lab

Every couple of weeks, Kurt Edwards rises before the sun and makes the 40-mile trek to the Department of Energy desert site.

For sometimes 10 hours a day, the GIS analyst travels over rough dirt roads in his Ford pickup, gathering data from the 22 Anabat sensors across the 890-square mile site.

A GIS analyst studies geographic information systems. They create maps and data sets of information.

The sensors record the echo frequencies of bats flying across the desert landscape or hibernating in the 15 caves on site.

“We’re trying to gather a baseline of how many and what species of bats frequent the site,” Edwards said. “We’re also trying to figure out (which bat species are) using the caves.”

But the contractor for wildlife research on the DOE site — Gonzales-Stoller Surveillance — isn’t collecting data simply to further its research. They’re collecting it in preparation for an onslaught of disease.

White-nose syndrome has wiped out about six million bats across the U.S. and is spreading west. Researchers don’t know much about the disease.

“We’ve never seen this before,” U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service field supervisor David Kampwerth said. “A few die here, a few here — mostly because of humans going into caves; but never death to this degree before.”

As the fungus moves toward Idaho, wildlife researchers and enthusiasts won’t be the only ones devastated by the mass destruction of the bat population. So will farmers.

The disease could cost the Idaho agriculture industry millions of dollars in chemical pesticides if the number of pest-eating bats dwindles.

White-nose syndrome, also known as Geomyces destructans, first was discovered in 2006 in New York caves. Since then, it has spread as far west as Oklahoma.

The fungus thrives in cold and humid conditions, such as those found in caves or mines where bats hibernate. It shows no signs of slowing down.

“There’s no end in sight, it’s filling in all the holes in the East,” Kampwerth said. “Some of the models suggest in three to five years it will come to the West.”

Bats affected by the disease are sometimes found with white fungus growing on their wings and hairless regions of their bodies.

It’s unclear how the fungus kills the bats. Some researchers believe it grows on bats during hibernation, irritating them until they wake up, Kampwerth said.

Bats hibernate during the winter and live off the fat reserves they have stored. When the fungus awakens the bats, they leave the cave to forage for bugs, he said.

But because its winter, the bugs are few and far between so the bats burn up the last of their fat reserves and die, he added.

“In many caves, the mortality rate is 98 to 100 percent,” he added.

Some researchers believe migratory bats spread the fungus from cave to cave. But Kampwerth said humans likely were responsible for bringing the fungus to the United States.

The disease is common in bats across Europe but they have adapted.

Humans exploring those European caves likely got the fungus on their clothing and brought it back to the U.S., he said.

The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service has established a decontamination protocol for people who explore caves. It includes thoroughly cleaning all equipment and clothing.

“This is very difficult for most people to adhere to, but the best thing for us to do is prevent the human spread,” Kampwerth said.

The 15 caves on the DOE site are closed to the public.

Bats save Idaho’s agricultural industry $313 million every year, according to a 2011 study published in the journal Science.

Their appetite for pests that plague farming operations, forests and humans make them a natural-born pesticide.

A single bat can eat about 3,000 insects per night, Kampwerth said. And without that natural pesticide, farmers and even horticulturalists would have to spend a lot more to keep their plants and crops pest-free, he added.

“The effect would be fairly significant,” Kampwerth said.

Even plant nurseries would be affected by the spread of this disease.

“One friend has a nursery that sits over a colony of 33,000 bats,” Kampwerth said. “He doesn’t put a drop of pesticides on the nursery because of the bats.”

The study estimated that bats are worth about $14 million per year in Bonneville County and $23 million per year in Bingham County.

“Anytime that you have a predator or anything eating an insect (and they disappear), it’s going to impact agriculture if you lose that tool,” said Wayne Jones of the University of Idaho’s Bonneville County Extension Office.

White-nose could affect more than 50 percent of the bat species found on the site, said Quinn Shurtliff, a Wildlife Conservation Society scientist.

One of those is Townsend’s big-eared bat, which is considered a sensitive species in Idaho. Another, the little brown myotis, is the subject of a petition for protection under the Endangered Species Act, Shurtliff said.

Gonzales-Stoller Surveillance experts have been studying the bats since November 2011 and will continue to do so.

If the fungus makes it to Idaho, the data collected about the type and number of bats at DOE’s site will show researchers when bats begin to die.

“In the winter, we’ll keep the Anabats in the caves when the bats should be hibernating,” Edwards said. “If a lot of bats start leaving the cave, we’ll know.”

 

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