Under the Radar
The sound of gunshots pierces the serenity of a cool December day in the Monongahela National Forest in West Virginia, as hunters try for their trophy white-tailed deer. Oak, maple, walnut and chestnut leaves blanket the ground as far as the eye can see. Evergreenspredominantly balsam fir and red sprucedot the landscape and silhouette the mountain slopes.
West Virginia is known for its mountains. Some of its most beautiful peaks top off the hardwood forest that makes up the Monongahela, the fourth largest national forest along the East Coast. Six rivers have their headwaters here, including the Potomac, a trickle of the river that runs through the nations capital 200 miles to the northeast.
The area offers a variety of recreational opportunities, and the Monongahela is host to about 3 million visitors each year. In addition to hunting, other popular activities include hiking, canoeing and caving. One of the most frequented destinations within the park is the Spruce Knob-Seneca Rocks National Recreation Area, where climbers tackle the 900-foot quartzite crag of Seneca Rocks.
But the popularity of the forest may prove the undoing for some of its native species. Nestled within the forests rugged wilderness lies an ecological microcosm: nearly fifty caving systems that provide a safe haven, critical habitat and breeding and hibernation space for the endangered Virginia big-eared bat and the Indiana bat. According to Craig Stihler, wildlife biologist and endangered species coordinator for the West Virginia Division of Natural Resources, West Virginia has the largest population of Virginia big-eared bats in the world. The Indiana bat has been federally protected since 1967. Stihler estimates that West Virginia is home to hundreds of thousands of bats, including Eastern Pipistrelle and little brown bats.
But a mysterious fungus is threatening these already fragile populations. The new illnesscalled White-Nose Syndromeis finding its way deep within the recesses of caves along the East Coast, a silent killer to every bat colony it enters. Its name refers to a white fungus that develops around the noses of infected bats. Bats with the disease lose their hibernating fat reserves and have been seen leaving their winter hibernation homes in frigid temperatures. Until recently, scientists knew virtually nothing about the syndrome, particularly what caused it, how it spread, and whether the fungus was a symptom or a cause. But a recent article in Science magazine links a newly identified cold-loving fungus as the potential agent. Scientists believe the fungus could be penetrating the bats skin and ultimately causing the bats to starve.
Its a scary sort of disease when you really dont know what the vector is, even if you know the culprit. One of the concerns is that cavers could bring the disease into the caves, says Kate Goodrich-Arling, spokeswoman for the Monongahela National Forest. Until you know there needs to be a fair amount of caution.
Forest officials in the Monongahela are trying to stave off the mysterious illness by making six caves within the forest off-limits to cave enthusiasts.
Goodrich-Arling says its unlike the U.S. Forest Service to have a knee-jerk reaction to an issue and close an area off to the public, but added that there was enough concern in the biological community at large to warrant the cave closures to protect the forests bat population.
The loss of bat populations could have devastating ecological effects. Bats help control insects, particularly mosquitoes, with some species of bats consuming as many as 3,000 bugs in one night. Bats are also a vital partner in the pollination of plants and the dissemination of seeds.
The first cases of White-Nose Syndrome were documented during 2006 in caves in Albany, New York. Since its discovery, the disease has spread rapidly, claiming the lives of tens of thousands of bats and spreading to twenty-seven caves and mines in New York, Vermont, Connecticut and Massachusetts. Scientists have recently confirmed cases in New Jersey and Pennsylvania. The sickness has an 80 to 100 percent mortality rate once it enters a bat colony.
We know so little about White-Nose Syndrome, says Stihler. The big fear is that it is spread through cave dirt from people moving from cave to cave.
Both the Virginia big-eared bat and the Indiana bat tend to cluster in only a few caves, Stihler says. Their dense population habits could be disastrous if the disease got into one of those colonies.
[White-Nose Syndrome] could spread very quickly through the population if it got started here, he says.
Prior to the year-round closure, certain cavesall of which harbor populations of threatened or endangered batshad been closed seasonally to protect the bats during hibernation and the raising of young.
The majority of caves in the Monongahela, such as the popular Bowden Cave, are still open to the public. Wildlife officials ask, however, that people visiting caves decontaminate their shoes and clothing after every visit. Officials also ask to be contacted if visitors find any bats acting abnormally or displaying a white fungus.
Stihler says the effort to find out more about and stop the spread of White-Nose Syndrome is more than a state issue; its a regional issue that involves any agencies involved in the protection of wildlife. The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service is the central repository of information about the syndrome, with state and federal scientists and researchers conferencing regularly to try and find solutions to stop this debilitating disease.
Given all the precautions we take, it still might not be enough, Stihler says.