Oregon wildlife experts step up efforts to prevent a deadly fungal disease that attacks bats

White-nose syndrome, which put one species on the endangered list, hasn’t reached Oregon yet but it’s likely to arrive

By: - March 24, 2022 6:00 am

A northern long-eared bat with white nose syndrome. (Steve Taylor, University of Illinois/U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service)

State wildlife experts have stepped up efforts to fight a deadly fungal disease that has infected over half the nation’s bat species and, on Tuesday, put one on the endangered species list. 

But, with the disease already in Washington state, they say it’s probably just a matter of time before it hits Oregon.

White-nose syndrome, which appears as a white fuzz on the noses of infected bats, has been found in bats in 38 states and killed nearly 7 million, according to the federal Fish and Wildlife Service. On Tuesday, the department announced that the northern long-eared bat, found across much of the U.S. and Canada, was the first bat species to be listed as endangered due to the disease.

Oregon is one of 12 states that have avoided the disease and the fungus that causes it since it first showed up in New York in 2006. But at least six of the state’s 15 bat species, which do not include the northern long-ear, are susceptible to it and eight are being monitored, according to Ray Dodd, a biologist at the Oregon Department of Fish and Wildlife. 

Oregon’s bat species are vital to the state’s ecosystem and agricultural economy. They are important pollinators and eat pests and insects harmful to agriculture. 

“It’s tough, there’s an inevitability about it,” Dodd said about the disease reaching Oregon.  “Bats are crucial to our ecosystem, from quality life with mosquito consumption and consumption of farm pests, they are essential to a lot of things.”

Oregon’s most common bat, little brown bats, have contracted the disease in several other states where they live, including Washington.

“The goal now is to detect it as early as possible and to mitigate its spread,” Dodd said.  

The fungus that causes white-nose syndrome, called pseudogymnoascus destructans, has been found in four counties near Seattle, and the syndrome has been detected in bats in four other Washington counties, including Lewis, Mason and Yakima, not far from Oregon’s northern border. 

“Oregon and Washington are divided by a river, and that’s not going to stop it,” Dodd said. “Bats fly, and some fly pretty far.”

The first case of white-nose syndrome in Washington state was confirmed in March of 2016 in a little brown bat. Since then, the Washington Department of Fish and Wildlife has found over 100 cases of the disease in four bat species in the state. 

The fungus that causes white nose syndrome attacks the skin of bats while they hibernate, according to the federal wildlife officials. As it spreads, it can cause scarring and holes in their wings. It can cause them to break hibernation and fly into the cold to look for food, burning up their fats stores needed to survive winter. Without insects that thrive in warmer months, they can freeze or starve to death. 

Researchers at the Oregon’s Fish and Wildlife Department, along with those from the Oregon State University Northwest Bat Hub have been testing for the fungus in Oregon by swabbing the sides of caves and mines where hibernating bats live and testing soil and bat poop, or guano. They also test at “maternity spots,” where female bats tend to congregate for birthing. They have tested annually since 2015 but recently they have expanded testing dramatically, according to Dodd.

“We’re really concerned,” he said. “It’s been moving with speed, but we’re over 10 years in and it hasn’t reached us, yet. But it’s marching.”

In addition to testing, Dodd said Oregon’s Fish and Wildlife Department has monthly and quarterly calls with the federal Fish and Wildlife Service, as well as the Washington State Fish and Wildlife Service, the Idaho Fish and Wildlife Service, the Bureau of Land Management and the National Parks Service to discuss the bats and white-nose syndrome, among other things. 

In other parts of the country, at least four species that also live in Oregon have been found carrying the fungus but they’ve not gotten sick. 

“We’re taking steps to mitigate it from coming,” Dodd said. “This involves mostly preventing humans from transporting it. There’s not much you can do to prevent a bat from transporting it.”

Scientists believe the fungus was transported into Washington by a human likely on clothing or shoes. Dodd said they are trying to raise awareness about decontaminating clothing and shoes before entering caves and not transporting bats by accident in campers or other vehicles.

Little brown bats are primarily found in human structures, like houses and barns. Dodd said they live in much of the state, especially in the western, more populous half. 

There are currently no endangered or threatened bats in Oregon, according to the federal Fish and Wildlife Service. Because the fungus that causes white-nose syndrome has become so common in the U.S., it is unlikely that it will go away, federal wildlife officials say. The department is collaborating with public agencies and universities to find a cure or treatment to help bats survive. 

 

Our stories may be republished online or in print under Creative Commons license CC BY-NC-ND 4.0. We ask that you edit only for style or to shorten, provide proper attribution and link to our web site.

Alex Baumhardt
Alex Baumhardt

Alex Baumhardt has been a national radio producer focusing on education for American Public Media since 2017. She has reported from the Arctic to the Antarctic for national and international media, and from Minnesota and Oregon for The Washington Post. She previously worked in Iceland and Qatar and was a Fulbright scholar in Spain where she earned a master's degree in digital media. She's been a kayaking guide in Alaska, farmed on four continents and worked the night shift at several bakeries to support her reporting along the way.

MORE FROM AUTHOR