State wildlife officials are ramping up the monitoring of bats this spring after a deadly fungal strain surfaced last week in Washington.
Oregon Department of Fish and Wildlife biologists have more questions than answers on whether Oregon bats are at increasing risk from white-nose syndrome, commonly called WNS, which has killed 6 million bats in North America since it was discovered a decade ago.
They have enlisted county public health officers, wildlife rehabilitators and the general public to look for dead or sick bats, including those seen flying during the daytime, and report them on a new online data-collection site at www.dfw.state.or.us/wildlife/health_program/WNS/reporting.asp.
"We don't really know where to look, so the best way to go at this is online reporting," says Colin Gillin, ODFW's state veterinarian. "We're trying to use all the resources we can."
The effort comes three weeks after the U.S. Geological Survey confirmed that a dead bat found 30 miles east of Seattle suffered from WNS. Before that, the closest known infection was in Minnesota, according to the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, which is the lead responder for WNS in the United States.
But Oregon wildlife managers still don't know how much of a threat WNS is to the 16 known species of bats in the state.
Three strains of WNS are known, with the North American strain infecting Eastern states. There are also European and Asian strains, but Gillin says it could take up to a month to determine the strain present in the Washington bat.
"We need more information," Gillin says.
First seen in North America in late 2006 in eastern New York, WNS has spread to 28 states and five Canadian provinces. The fungus that causes the disease is pseudogymnoascus destructans, but it goes by the WNS moniker because of the fuzzy, white fungal growth that is often seen on the muzzles of infected bats.
The fungus invades the skin of hibernating bats and causes damage, especially to delicate wing tissue, and physiologic imbalances that can lead to disturbed hibernation, depleted fat reserves, dehydration and death.
Gillin says bats are most susceptible in spring after they come out of hibernation and before they eat enough insects to beef up their immune systems and shed the fungus.
Along with the online reporting, ODFW will collect dead bats from every source possible for testing, Gillin says. The agency plans to hire a firm to do a statewide bat survey to map locations and species, and mist-netting is planned to collect bats that will be swabbed and released, he says.
Biologists say bats play a key role in a healthy environment. They eat tons of insects nightly at a rate of 1,000 insects an hour, benefitting crops, forests and humans.
The Idaho Department of Fish and Game estimates that bats contribute more than $313 million worth of pest control in that state every year to the agricultural industry alone. Studying bats also has led to advancements in sonar, vaccine development and blood coagulation, according to Idaho officials.