They all knew the disease was coming. It wasn’t a matter of if, but when.
White-nose fungus had already been found as close as northeast Nebraska, and then May 10 it was discovered in Badlands National Park, just over 100 miles from Wyoming’s border.
So when researchers collected spores that cause the devastating fungus on a bat in Fort Laramie less than a week later, there was sadness more than shock.
“It’s really disheartening in a lot of ways for sure,” said Ian Abernethy, lead vertebrate zoologist for the Wyoming Natural Diversity Database. “I was sort of surprised that we found it in Wyoming so soon. But I did feel like it was an inevitable thing.”
White-nose syndrome, a deadly fungus that kills bats by the millions, has been slowly spreading across the U.S. for a decade. Wildlife and land managers have been preparing for its arrival in Wyoming for years. On June 30, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service confirmed the actual disease — not just the spores — was found in South Dakota, infecting a long-legged bat, the newest bat in North America found to contract the fatal illness.
Now that the spores have arrived in Wyoming, wildlife managers are planning more surveys to track its progress, working with cavers to help prevent the spread and placing hope in habitat improvements and a possible cure.
White-nose syndrome might be new to Wyoming, but it’s not new to the country’s bat population.
Humans likely brought white nose to North America from Europe, Abernethy said. The first documented case was in 2006 in New York. It has since wreaked havoc on its spread westward.
The fungus itself doesn’t actually kill bats. As its name suggests, it affects the bare skin of bats and leaves a white powdery residue on their faces, irritating them during hibernation and causing them to wake up. The constant arousal burns their carefully-planned fat reserves causing them to either die of starvation in their hibernacula or leave their temperature-controlled caves in the dead of winter and die of exposure.
Once white nose is in a cave, it can kill up to 100 percent of the bat occupants.
Researchers have been searching for some kind of cure or prevention, but have yet to be successful. Like invasive mussels in waterways, the best solution to date has been to limit the spread.
Biologists with the Wyoming Game and Fish Department have been monitoring the state’s bats for the disease for years. The Natural Diversity Database began a project this year, which is how Abernethy found the disease in Badlands and Fort Laramie.
His crew had been trapping bats in early May in Fort Laramie and found scarring on an unusually large number of bats. Under a UV light, white-nose fungus shows up as a strange orange color, which they were not detecting, but the wing scarring was enough for Abernethy to head over to investigate.
He and others took swabs from bats and tiny wing biopsies to send to labs in Fort Collins and Madison, Wisconsin.
The result was positive at both labs.
It wasn’t the full-blown disease — unlike states like Nebraska that have confirmed deaths from white nose — but was a detection of the fungus that causes the disease.
As of the most recent announcement about the syndrome in South Dakota, white-nose has been confirmed in 33 states and seven Canadian provinces. The fungus, but not disease, has been confirmed in three more, said Catherine Hibbard, white-nose syndrome communications lead for the Fish and Wildlife Service.
“We are, right now, at the end of the white nose surveillance season,” she said. “You can’t detect it on them in the summer, they will groom it off and it remains to be seen how they will respond. If the disease will affect a species it will take a couple of years after you find the fungus for bats to become sick and start dying off.”
Just how bad it will be for Wyoming bats depends on a host of unknowns right now.
The disease seems to hit some species harder than others. The three most susceptible species are the little brown bat — which is common in Wyoming and what had the fungus at Fort Laramie — the northern long-eared bat and the tricolored bat.
The northern long-eared bat was recently placed on the endangered species list because of the effect of white nose.
Bats in Wyoming may not be struck as devastating a blow as ones on the East Coast because they hibernate in different ways. Bats in New York, for example, may hibernate in groups of tens of thousands. In the Cowboy State they rarely hibernate in groups larger than 40 or 50, said Nichole Bjornlie, the Wyoming Game and Fish Department’s nongame mammal biologist.
The climate here is also different — more arid and at times colder — than other states, which could hinder the fungus.
But while eradication of the disease is not currently probable, states like Wyoming can take action now, Bjornlie said. Habitat can be improved to help protect places where female bats roost in the summer, for example, giving them a chance to successfully reproduce and sustain their population.
Game and Fish and other biologists will continue surveying where the disease can be found in the state and work on ways to minimize its spread.
Wyoming’s caving community is doing its part to teach other cavers about the risk of moving the disease and how to prevent it from dispersing.
“We’re working with the Forest Service and Game and Fish to educate the public on that and get more people involved so they go caving the right way,” said Savannah Sawyer, project chairperson for Hole in the Wall Grotto, a Casper-based caving group.
Hole in the Wall Grotto formed in 1975, and has focused recently on making sure other cavers know the proper protocol for washing clothing and equipment to prevent the spores from transplanting.
Clothes and equipment must be put in bags after leaving a cave, for example, to keep from dropping possible spores in a vehicle. Any clothing worn in a cave should be soaked in a bath of 131-degree water for 20 minutes and those things that can’t be soaked should be cleaned with Lysol or another antibacterial. If you’ve been in a cave in an area that has the disease, Game and Fish asks people not to use the same gear in an area that has not tested positive.
Ultimately, surveying where the disease is found will be the quickest way to stop its spread once a vaccine or cure is found, Bjornlie said.
“We have 18 bats, which is about 15 percent of our mammalian diversity in the state,” she said. “They’re also huge predators of flying insects, so critical for agriculture, forestry, mosquito control. They’re an important part of the ecosystem. The more we can know where it is and what it is doing to bats the more we can be prepared.”