A devastating infection that's killed nearly 6 million bats since it reached North America has been found in Michigan for the first time, including in bats hibernating in Alpena County.
The Michigan Department of Natural Resources confirmed white nose syndrome was found in bats in Alpena, Dickinson and Mackinac counties. The department will now do what it can to prevent the spread of the disease, according to a release.
Eastern Michigan University Professor Allen Kurta, one of two who checks hibernating bats for the disease, said he believes Michigan bats are in the early stages of an epidemic.
"Based on what we've seen in the Northeast, in three to five years we will likely lose 90 percent of our bat species that hibernate underground," he said.
Kurta based those numbers from what biologists saw in bats infected in the Northeast, where the disease was first introduced to North America. The DNR's white nose syndrome response strategy notes the disease is believed to be caused by a fungus that affects bats by disturbing them during hibernation. This saps their energy reserves, causing them to die. It killed 81 to 97 percent of bats in affected caves in New York.
Unfortunately for bats, the fungus thrives in the same conditions in which they hibernate, DNR Wildlife Biologist Bill Scullon said.
"It only impacts bats, it only grows in the cold, it only grows during the winter time when they're in hibernation and have suppressed immune systems," he said. "The result is mortality."
Wisconsin's DNR also announced Thursday it had found white nose syndrome in bats hibernating in the southwest part of the state. Scullon said the two states were the last disease-free bastions in the region; last year, tests on bats in 33 Michigan locations turned up nothing.
The DNR will continue to monitor bat hibernacula in Michigan, being careful not to spread the disease in doing so, Scullon said. He urged people to avoid contact with places where bats hibernate, and to notify the DNR if they find multiple dead bats. This is the time of year when they start migrating back to their summer ranges, and it's typical for some to die during the winter.
"But if you see large numbers, call the DNR," he said.
To report this, call 517-336-3050, or go online: www.michigan.gov/wns
In a release, the DNR cautioned against handling bats, since they can carry rabies. There's no connection between white nose syndrome and rabies, and white nose syndrome has no known harmful effects on humans.
Scullon said the public can also help by putting out bat houses and educating themselves about the disease. The single best source of information is the U.S. Department of Fisheries and Wildlife's website: www.whitenosesyndrome.org
There's no treatment for the disease, so the DNR and numerous partners will focus on educating the public and preventing people from spreading it, Scullon said. The fungus can hitchhike on shoes and clothes, and a new order prohibits anyone from accessing old mine shafts on state lands.
"We can't control the bats, but we can control the people," he said.
It's part of the state's response strategy, which calls on a number of governmental and nonprofit organizations to do their part in mitigating the disease's effects.
A mass die-off of bats could be bad news for farmers, Kurta said. The animals are intriguing in their own right- they echo-locate their pray and are the only flying mammals, among other traits. But they provide a valuable service by eating tons of insects. Kurta cited a recent study that estimated their appetites amount to $508 million per year in avoided costs to farmers statewide.
"They're neat creatures, but if that doesn't grab your attention, there is a very definite economic impact that potentially we're going to suffer because these animals are no longer here," he said.