North America's Largest Wildlife Crisis




By Steve Wing and James Eggers

Amid all the stress and uncertainty in our global world today, a largely unknown to the public crisis is playing out all over the United States and Canada. This could well be the largest wildlife crisis to occur in modern times. Bats are being targeted as never before, and not by the usual culprits: habitat loss, hunting, etc. In the last decade, two new devastating challenges have surfaced which threaten to severely deplete the numbers of bats found in our backyards, possibly even causing species extinctions. White-nose Syndrome (WNS) and wind energy turbines are two new threats to our native bats.

Why Do Bats Matter?
Most North American bats eat bugs: principally flying insects to be more precise. We all know that each individual bat can eat up to 600 insects each evening, some of them our nemesis the mosquito. But bats also provide a huge economic value by consuming insects that are pests of commercial crops. It is conservatively estimated that each year a million bats will consume 700 tons of insects. The impact to agriculture of losing millions of bats is staggering and expensive.

White-nose Syndrome
White-nose syndrome (WNS), named because of the white fungus that grows on the noses (and sometimes wings, ears and tails) of most infected bats, is a new disease that has killed over six million bats since it appeared in 2006 and threatens to devastate bat populations across the continent. Nearly 100 percent of bats have died at some sites.

The fungus, Geomyces destructans, is believed to have come to North America from Europe. Although bat-to-bat transmission is believed to be the primary route, circumstantial evidence suggests humans may also inadvertently carry WNS from infected sites to clean sites.

The disease hits bats while they are hibernating and is characterized by some or all of these symptoms: a white fungus that grows on the nose, ears, and wing membranes; depleted fat reserves due to increased winter arousals; a compromised immune response during hibernation; damage or scarring of the wings; and abnormal bat behavior (for example, bats emerge too soon from hibernation and are often seen flying around in midwinter, which usually means they will freeze or starve to death.

The AZA Bat Advisory Group (BatTAG), Bat Conservation International (BCI), U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service and many other groups and agencies are working together to mitigate bat losses and to find an answer to these devastating diseases and processes. In July 2010, several AZA zoo and aquarium persons met with representatives from the USFWS, state wildlife agencies, the Nature Conservancy (host), Bat Conservation International (host), and others at the St. Louis Zoo to discuss options for captive management. The three-day workshop looked at many options for management from taking no action to a full SSP-type program, and everything in between. No decisions have currently been made, but the options for AZA institutions to help are integrated into the National Plan.

Wind Energy, Turbines and Bats
Capturing energy from the wind is good, right? It’s a win-win for all, a renewable source of fossil-free energy that doesn’t pollute our environment. But an emerging and alarming challenge facing biologists involves the increasing numbers of bat fatalities reported at wind turbines since 2003. The cumulative impact on bat populations is a concern as wind development continues to expand across the country. Wind generation capacity in the United States has grown from 4,144 MW in 2001 to 48,611 MW in 2012.

It is unknown why turbines are killing bats. Can it be as simple as bats are in the wrong place at the wrong time? Could bats be attracted to the spinning turbine blades? Bat fatalities at wind turbines occur at a much greater rate than with other tall, human-made structures.

We do know that the majority of bats killed by wind turbines are comprised of migratory tree-roosting species. Another fact is that the vast majority of bat fatalities, in North America, occur during late summer and fall, during periods of migration and mating.

In 2003, Bat Conservation International joined with the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, the American Wind Energy Association and the National Renewable Energy Laboratory to create the Bats and Wind Energy Cooperative (BWEC). BWEC is an alliance of state and federal agencies, private industry, academic institutions and non-governmental organizations committed to finding solutions to minimize or, where possible, prevent bat fatalities at wind-power turbines.

Urgent and effective conservation action is critical if we are to avoid endangering additional species and perhaps even seeing some species become extinct.

Year of the Bat
The AZA Bat Taxon Advisory Group, Bat Conservation International and educators from several AZA zoos and aquariums have teamed up to make it easy for AZA institutions to spread the word about how we may help this devastating crisis. Visit www.batcon.org/AZA to explore the “virtual suitcase” we’ve created and filled with everything you need to hold an event, run a class or interact with guests in your zoo or aquarium. It includes an introduction to bats, threats and possible actions to protect bats, activities, potential speakers, photos and even sample Facebook and Twitter posts.

How Can I Help?
• Education, Education, Education! AZA institutions are in a unique spot to educate and influence millions of people. In addition, tell your friends and families about the benefits of bats and the threat of white-nose syndrome and the effects of wind turbines on bats.
• Sponsor a Year of the Bat event. Great ideas can be found at www.batcon.org/YOTB.
• Encourage state and federal legislators to allocate funding for efforts to understand and fight this devastating disease.
• Encourage state, and federal officials to develop wind energy policies and regulations that help mitigate bat fatalities at wind turbine sites.
• If your energy company currently uses wind power, ask them to join the Bats and Wind Energy Cooperative to protect bats.
• Report unusual late-winter bat behavior (such as bats flying during the daytime) or unexplained bat deaths to your state wildlife agency.
• Adhere to state, federal and local cave advisories and closures to help prevent the transmission of WNS. And when you enter caves, carefully follow decontamination protocols outlined by the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service. You’ll find updated protocols at www.fws.gov/whitenosesyndrome/pdf/National_WNS_Decontamination_Protocol_v03.15.2012.pdf
• Donate to BCI’s WNS Rapid Response Fund at www.batcon.org/wnsdonate.

For More Information and or Resources Visit:
www.batcon.org/yotb and www.batcon.org/aza
www.fws.gov/WhiteNoseSyndrome
www.fws.gov/midwest/endangered/esday/wind2010

Steve Wing is the AZA Bat TAG Chair and General Curator, Louisville Zoo
James Eggers is the Director of Education at Bat Conservation International