Tahlequah Daily Press

Local News

July 10, 2014

Local bat population may be under threat

TAHLEQUAH — Cherokee County’s bat population could be under threat from a disease that is not deadly in itself, but can set up a chain reaction that can ultimately decimate whole colonies.

Many years ago, professors at Northeastern State University studied the local bat population, mainly consisting of the big-eared bat, and at the time, little brown bats. Although the bats favored caves are generally closed to the public, wildlife officials still try to keep tabs on them.

White nose syndrome, a fungus spreading through bat populations in the eastern United States, doesn’t kill the bats outright, but it’s still a major concern.

“It’s like having athlete’s foot,” said Ron Van Den Bussche, a regents professor of zoology at Oklahoma State University. “It doesn’t really do anything; it just irritates and itches.”

But the white fungus can become deadly in the winter, when the irritation causes bats to wake up more often, using up their stored fat without enough food or water to replace it.

Officials confirmed on May 6 that the one suspected case in Oklahoma was not actually white nose syndrome.

“It was pretty suspicious from the start,” said Van Den Bussche.

The suspected case of white nose was in the western half of the state in a western species of bat. Since the fungus is spreading from the east, it did not appear to be very likely the problem with the particular bat.

“Right now, we have no confirmed or suspected cases,” said Van Den Bussche.

With confirmed cases just over the border in Devil’s Den State Park in Arkansas, it will more than likely to spread into Oklahoma. All caves in Arkansas and many in northeastern Oklahoma have closed their caves to public use.

“These measures will at least help slow the spread,” said Richard Stark, a wildlife biologist with the Ozark Plateau National Wildlife Refuge in Stilwell.

The refuge has gated its caves for many years to protect the endangered Ozark big-eared bats and gray bats living there. But the refuge, as well as the rest of the state, has a specific protocol for whenever people enter a cave for research or monitoring the bats.

“You have to go in there clean and clean everything when you get out,” said Van Den Bussche.

Stark said visitors are prohibited from taking any gear used in an affected region into a white nose-free area.

Stark and Van Den Bussche both believe the fungus is more likely to spread through bats migrating to different caves, but as Van Den Bussche explained, the very first cases in North America were brought over from Europe by people.

The refuge where Stark works is currently part of the Transcontinental Transmission Study, a group of researchers from different colleges across the continent, beginning in the east and moving west, who monitor bats and look for signs of white nose syndrome. They have been part of this study for three years, and because of their participation in this study, the protected bats at the refuge are monitored year-round for the fungus.

There are about 13 different species of bats living in eastern Oklahoma, according to Van Den Bussche. Three of those species are the Ozark big-eared bats, gray bats and soon the Northern long-eared bat.

The long-eared bat is the species most affected on a national level by white nose syndrome. On June 30, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service gave a six-month extension to researchers and activists to submit information about the Northern long-eared bat and its likely status change to an endangered species.

The Ozark big-eared bat has a population of only between 1,800 and 1,500 with approximately 1,100 in a three-county area in northeastern Oklahoma. If white nose hit this population, it could potentially greatly diminish the species already small numbers.

Van Den Bussche said the syndrome can have “devastating results,” but he does not believe bats living in Northeast Oklahoma will be as affected as those in northern states.

Because there are very few times in the year, including in the winter, when there are not bugs or free water for bats waking out of their winter sleep, it is much less likely any bats potentially affected in Oklahoma will starve or become dehydrated.

“I’m very hopeful that if it does hit Oklahoma, we won’t have the same mass mortality,” said Van Den Bussche.


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