Dead bats litter the floor of a cave

Word this week that White Nose Syndrome (WNS) has been found in two caves in western Maine is just more bad news for the disappearing bat population. While considerable progress has been made in identifying and understanding the killer fungus that’s driving the region’s bat population to extinction, little has been done to stop or even slow the plunge.

WNS was first identified in 2006 in two caves in upstate New York, after wildlife officials there reported mysterious die-offs among hibernating bats. Since then, the culprit has been identified as a previously unknown fungus, Geomyces destructans. Apparently it causes hibernating bats to wake up too early, when there’s no food around, and, already in a weakened state, they die.

Since it was first discovered, it has spread to 18 states and four Canadian provinces. WNS has killed more than a million bats, according to the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service.

For those thinking good riddance to the creepy little critters, guess again.

In the ecosystem, they provide an important pest control service. Those million dead bats would have eaten something on the order of 3 million pounds of insects each year. In agricultural areas, this would have meant billions in savings on pesticides.

Last week, the USFWS announced a nationwide effort to slow and eventually stop the spread of WNS and restore the region’s bat population. Let’s hope it’s not too little, too late.