WNS Confirmed in Gray Bats in Tennessee

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WNS Confirmed in Gray Bats in Tennessee

Postby PYoungbaer » May 29, 2012 9:58 am

From a U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service Press Release this morning:

White-nose Syndrome Confirmed in Federally Endangered Gray Bats

The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service (Service) has confirmed the presence of white-nose syndrome in federally listed endangered gray bats (Myotis grisecens) in Hawkins and Montgomery counties in Tennessee.

White-nose syndrome (WNS) has decimated bat populations across eastern North America, with mortality rates reaching up to 100 percent at some sites. First documented in New York in 2006, the disease has spread into 19 states and four Canadian provinces. Bats with WNS may exhibit unusual behavior during cold winter months, including flying outside during the day and clustering near the entrances of caves and mines where they hibernate. Bats have been found sick and dying in unprecedented numbers near these hibernacula.

This is the first confirmation of WNS in federally listed gray bats. White-nose syndrome had previously been documented in six hibernating bat species, including the federally listed endangered Indiana bat (Myotis sodalis). Significant mortality has been documented in many colonies of hibernating Indiana bats in the Northeast and mid-Atlantic states. While no mortality has been observed in gray bats that can be linked to WNS, the confirmation that gray bats can be infected is cause for concern.

“The news that that another federally endangered bat species, the gray bat, has been confirmed with white-nose syndrome is devastating for anyone who cares about bats and the benefits they provide to people,” said Fish and Wildlife Service Director Dan Ashe. “Bats provide tremendous value to the U.S. economy as natural pest control for American farms and forests every year. Research and management of this disease remains a priority for the Service, and we will continue to work closely with our partners to understand the spread of this deadly disease and minimize its impacts to affected bat species.”

The gray bats were discovered on two separate winter surveillance trips, conducted by the Tennessee Wildlife Resources Agency (TWRA) and The Nature Conservancy (TNC). Biologists observed white fungus on the muzzles, wing, and tail membranes of several bats. Specimens were collected, and the disease was diagnosed by histopathology at the Southeastern Cooperative Wildlife Disease Study (SCWDS) at the University of Georgia, and later confirmed the USGS National Wildlife Health Center in Madison, Wisconsin.

“The documented spread of WNS on gray bats is devastating news. This species was well on the road to recovery, and confirmation of the disease is great cause for concern. Because gray bats hibernate together in colonies that number in the hundreds of thousands, WNS could expand exponentially across the range of the species,” said Paul McKenzie, Missouri Endangered Species Coordinator for the Service. “The confirmation of WNS in gray bats is also alarming because guano from the species is an important source of energy for many cave ecosystems and there are numerous cave-adapted species that could be adversely impacted by their loss.”

The gray bat, federally listed as an endangered species in 1976, occupies a limited geographic range in limestone karst areas of the southeastern United States. With rare exceptions, gray bats live in caves year-round. Gray bats are endangered largely because of their habit of living in very large numbers in only a few caves, making them extremely vulnerable to disturbance. Cooperative conservation measures, such as restricting human access to critical gray bat hibernation and roosting sites, have been successful in helping gray bat populations recover in many areas.

The potential impact of white-nose syndrome on gray bats is still unknown. Visible fungal growth was observed on hibernating gray bats in both sites, but no other definitive field signs of the disease or mortality events have been documented. The findings of these studies will be submitted to a peer-reviewed journal for publication, and gray bat roosts will continue to be monitored for any indication of deleterious impacts.

“We are not sure what this diagnosis is going to mean for gray bats and the spread of WNS,” said Jeremy Coleman, National WNS Coordinator for the Service. “Increased vigilance and improved diagnostic procedures may mean that we have identified the very early stages of infection in a new species. It is also possible that gray bats have been exposed for a few years, but do not succumb to the infection. Individual bat species appear to respond differently to WNS, and only research and time will reveal where gray bats fit on the spectrum.”

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Re: WNS Confirmed in Gray Bats in Tennessee

Postby tncaver » May 29, 2012 1:42 pm

Specifically, which two caves were the infected bats found in?
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Re: WNS Confirmed in Gray Bats in Tennessee

Postby Pippin » May 29, 2012 2:58 pm

Bellamy and Pearson. Both gated, the state of TN owns them.
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Re: WNS Confirmed in Gray Bats in Tennessee

Postby tncaver » May 29, 2012 3:13 pm

Pippin wrote:Bellamy and Pearson. Both gated, the state of TN owns them.


Amazing how all these gated caves continue to come down with WNS affected bats. Or is it?
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Re: WNS Confirmed in Gray Bats in Tennessee

Postby BrianC » May 29, 2012 4:23 pm

It would appear that someone or something doesn't like bats.
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Re: WNS Confirmed in Gray Bats in Tennessee

Postby PYoungbaer » May 29, 2012 4:29 pm

The more I read and think about this, the more it takes me back to one of the initial investigative issues we had with WNS - the lack of baseline data on non-threatened species.

Wildlife biologists have long had their study sites - mostly gated and closed - and data was officially recognized only if an "official" or known academic researcher provided it. When the NSS joined with the U.S. Geological Survey's David Blehert, Boston University's Tom Kunz, and the New York Department of Environmental Conservation's Al Hicks to do the extensive 30-state sampling of cave sediments to see how ubiquitous the then-suspect fungus was in the environment, the biologists reacted strongly against others going out and collecting samples in bat caves.

They wanted to do it, but they would only be going into the sites they already knew and worked in, such as the Indiana bat hibernacula, which were on schedule for their biennial survey.

While we did want them to sample from these caves, and had no intention of additional visitation to those sites - one of their concerns, that method would not have provided anywhere near a valid geographically diverse sampling. It was a bit of a battle to get the cooperation necessary to do the valid sampling.

Now, with the cave closures, we are only getting what I think may be a biased sampling again. These researchers are going into sites they know, ones that are gated or otherwise closed. Samples are not being taken from other sites. In Indiana, I'm told the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service has taken over the bat surveying and long-time people and methodologies have changed, making comparisons with previous databases difficult. I have a similar report from Wisconsin, where a longtime bat surveyor has been told his services are no longer welcome.

Perhaps the agencies can't see how this is being perceived, but it is coming across as controlling - of the data, and thus the story. These aren't my words, but I'll repeat them to make the point about the perception problem the agencies have: it seems that if you don't have tan shirt with an embroidered logo, your data/opinion/information isn't valid. There's nothing magic about the clothes, and one of my frustrations with this whole WNS thing is that I hear and see far too many managers who know nothing about caves, much less having ever been in one, offering opinions and making decisions about them. To be fair, just because someone puts on a caving helmet and crawls underground doesn't make them an expert on caves or cave conservation either, but I don't find the dynamic at work helpful.

Which brings me back to the issue tncaver and others have raised - why is it that the vast majority of reports of WNS spreading come from sites that are closed? Because those are the only ones being checked.

Ironically, this poses a growing problem for the wildlife agencies, as it makes the case over and over again that cave closures are doing nothing to stop the spread of WNS. This breeds increasing skepticism of management initiatives, and in the overall credibility of the agencies. The USFWS caving advisory had lots of credibility problems within the caving community right from the start, and the blanket closure orders by both state and federal agencies - and how they've been implemented - haven't moved to improve that perception.

Politics is perception, and the acceptance of proposals for management will be directly tied to how well the activities are perceived. Right now, the agencies have a long way to go to improve that perception.
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Re: WNS Confirmed in Gray Bats in Tennessee

Postby wyandottecaver » May 29, 2012 4:33 pm

tncaver wrote:
Pippin wrote:Bellamy and Pearson. Both gated, the state of TN owns them.


Amazing how all these gated caves continue to come down with WNS affected bats. Or is it?


Not really surprising. WNS is a bat disease transmitted (at least) by bats. The places most likely to be affected are those places with a lot of bats. The caves most likely to be gated....you guessed it.
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Re: WNS Confirmed in Gray Bats in Tennessee

Postby JD » Jun 5, 2012 10:43 am

Pearsons Cave in Hawkins County, Tennessee is privately owned. There is a gate. Bellamy Cave is an important historical cave in which I have done research, back when other folks besides bat biologists were allowed in caves.... There is a stout, high, steel fence though not a classic cave gate.

The really big news is buried in the third paragraph. No associated mortality. In other words, the gray bats have the fungus but are not dying from it, at least not yet. But instead of highlighting this, the press release is full of scary "what-ifs."

Yawn. More of the same...
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Re: WNS Confirmed in Gray Bats in Tennessee

Postby wyandottecaver » Jun 5, 2012 4:43 pm

JD,

the lack of "observed mortality" is perhaps misleading. We don't know how many were observed to be infected, thus whether observed mortality is even reasonable. We also tend to zoom in to the individual level even though mostly we cant tell one from another over time. We really need to talk in terms of colonies or populations. (the fort drum studies got people excited even though the population was crashing in a drastic way)

I also think people have a skewed perception based on the early NY and VT cases. In many WNS caves it seems there has actually been very little "observed" mortality linked to WNS. Declines are noted, but with few exceptions there arent piles of dead bats around. This is due to many perishing out on the landscape and also scavanging by wildlife.

Certainly we may start to see colonies that have WNS but arent declining as has been noted in Europe. We haven't seen that anywhere yet as far as I know. But just because there isn't a dead bat at your feet doesnt mean much....
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