JULY 27, 2013

The winter and spring of 2013 were unremarkable in terms of unexpected developments regarding White Nose Syndrome (WNS) the disease responsible for killing large numbers of hibernating bats in the Eastern U.S. and Canada.  States such as Tennessee and Kentucky and the Canadian province of New Brunswick – areas that had been identified as WNS-positive in the past – were frequently mentioned in the season's reports as many counties filled in as WNS saturated those locales.  Colonies that had reported early onset of the disease saw large mortalities.  The disease continued to spread on the front lines, with Georgia, South Carolina, and Prince Edward Island confirming this year.  Scroll down to the latest map.

As of this writing, WNS has been confirmed in  22 states and 5 Canadian provinces.  The disease has been confirmed in seven bat species, and the fungus Geomyces destructans has been detected on three other species.  This latter statement is based on the US Fish and Wildlife WNS website, which lists the Virginia Big-eared bat has having been found to host the fungus.  However, inquiries on my part have only gotten an email message from the USFWS telling me that a couple of labs have confirmed this in a conference call, but there has been no published report or press release anywhere.  Thus, we have no link or citation to put on our NSS WNS website, consistent with our policy of only posting verifiable information.  Importantly, the Virginia Big-eared bat remains unaffected by the disease – a notable situation as it co-habits hibernacula with other bats that have been heavily affected.

As discussed in our 2013 Winter Update, this year was the bi-annual Indiana bat survey.  The results of that survey will be released this fall.  How this data compares to the data from two years ago will be a significant indicator on the long-term viability of this species.

There has been little news on the research front, especially in terms of published scientific studies.  Perhaps the most notable was the U.S. Forest Service's study of the fungus, reclassifying it as Pseudogymoascus destructans (P. destructans) vs. Geomyces destructans.   The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service awarded $950,000 to 28 state wildlife agencies in June, but these are mostly monitoring and surveillance activities, covering some agency personnel time as opposed to major research grants.  The Summer issue of Bat Conservation International's BATS news magazine featured an article on some promising research at Georgia State University, where a bacterium (Rhodococcus rhodochrous) has been found to inhibit the grown of the fungus.  The study is a PhD candidate's thesis and is in press awaiting publication, so we have no link for you at this time.

This is not to say that there isn't research ongoing, it's just not published.  One of the conferences I've attended for the past five years has been the North American Symposium on Bat Research (NASBR), typically held in late October.  However, this year it's being held in August, in concert with the International Bat Research Conference (IBRC) in Costa Rica in August.  Here is where primarily academic researchers and their students present their ongoing bat research.  The abstracts for the Conference have been posted, and include some 43 papers related to WNS.

Topics include European and North American studies, genetics, immune responses, measuring dose loads of the fungus, other potential bacterial bio-controls, why Gray bats have the fungus but no mortality, and early indications that even in WNS-devastated areas some bat species are maintaining pre-WNS genetic diversity (key to species survival) and the ability to reproduce.  Other related papers deal with management, surveillance, and conservation strategies.  It's important to remember that these abstracts relate to work in progress.  Some, but not all of these papers will find their way into peer-reviewed publications in the coming months and years. Still, this is the best place to find out what research is taking place now.  Warning, the full abstracts document is huge, as it covers all the papers from all over the world on every bat topic imaginable -  wealth of information for those interested. We've compiled a WNS-only abridged version for your convenience.

There was no annual WNS Symposium this spring, a victim of the federal budget sequester, so the opportunity to hear and share ongoing research and management issues with colleagues across the country has been delayed.  A smaller, invitation-only event is now scheduled for September in Idaho.  We hope the abstracts and/or proceedings will be posted on the USFWS website at some point.  I expect many of the research topics will duplicate those presented at IBRC/NASBR.

Other victims of limited federal resources have been any update to the USFWS caving advisory, long out of date and unchanged since its initial publication.  Similarly, each of the National Plan working groups was to have a prioritized list, with funding identified, that would make more real and focused the somewhat nebulous plans. Those have also not been forthcoming.

On the issue of cave closures or re-openings, two major developments took place over the past months. First is the re-opening of caves in the U.S. Forest Service Region 2 (Colorado and neighboring states).  The Center for Biological Diversity appealed, but the USFS denied the appeal.  Full details on the Region 2 decisions and process for cave visitation and reporting can be found here.  Second is the open-ended continuation of cave closures in the Monongahela National Forest in West Virginia. The NSS, through the Virginia Region (VAR), has urged re-opening for the past year and was expecting a public input process over the past year that never materialized.  We continue to work to offer the services of the organized caving community to assist in managing the cave resources within MNF consistent with the national Memorandum of Understanding between the NSS and the USFS.  Stay tuned.

On a personal note, I am stepping down as the WNS Liaison for the NSS, effective next month at the NSS Convention.  I'm doing this for personal reasons, but in communicating my resignation to the NSS I also believe we're at a turning point with WNS.  The NSS initially stepped up to help co-sponsor the first WNS conference, to establish the Rapid Response Fund to help get research dollars out into the field as soon as possible, and more rapidly than state and federal government sources could, to act as managers of affected WNS sites in New York, and to help educated the media and public.

We're long past the “Rapid Response” and emergency measures time frame, and have been moving steadily toward a conservation focus over the past couple of years.  Yes, we can still do our preventive part by ensuring that any gear used in WNS regions is not taken elsewhere, minimizing even the low risk of assisting in the transport of the disease.  However, as bats will continue to be the primary disease spreaders, and we as yet have no way to stop that, efforts have been increasing to understand the survival dynamics of remaining bats.  Protecting significant hibernacula, and especially avoiding cave visitation when bats are present and hibernating is something cavers knew long before WNS.  We can redouble our efforts to educate the public about this and practice it ourselves.

In my communication to the NSS, I've suggested an outline for re-orienting the long-term WNS response and activities to reflect this changing environment.  The NSS Board of Governors will be discussing and addressing this during their meetings at the Convention.  I encourage you to let them know your thoughts.

In stepping down, I want to extend my personal respect and admiration to the many bat researchers I've met and worked with.  These are incredible scientists who care deeply about the animals they study – and they're cool people, too!  To the state and federal agency personnel who the public charges with protection of species, I thank you for your efforts, sometimes above and beyond the call of duty, and certainly beyond the bounds of government funding and bureaucratic constraints.  I also want to thank the thousands of NSS members who have actively communicated with me and with your local and regional state and federal agencies and who, every day, help formally and informally with the discovery, study, management, and protection of bat and cave resources.  I've learned so much from all of you, as I hope you have from me.  I do truly believe that this has been a collaborative effort, with an extremely vibrant and lively discussion on science, management, conservation, and yes, even politics.  I do believe most of us have insisted on science being the driving force behind our work, frustratingly slow as science sometimes is, and that we're the better for it.

I want to thank NSS Presidents Wm Shrewsbury and Gordon Birkhimer, and the entire Board of Governors for their policy, budget, legal, and spiritual support.  WNS has been a challenge to the NSS – both its members and leadership – and I'm very appreciative of the support from all quarters.

Finally, I won't name names here, but I've been blessed with an extremely dedicated core of WNS Ad Hoc Liaison Committee members for these many years who have helped vet policy, publicity, publications, keep the website current (and functioning), research, management, government relations, outreach and education, and local and regional networking across the country, and much, much more.  You know who you are.  The NSS has been well-served by your efforts, and I trust you will continue to be involved.  Thank you all.

Peter Youngbaer
NSS 16161 CM FE
NSS WNS Liaison