The fungus has rapidly spread from New York to caves and mines in other states and Canada, and there's no known cure for the disease. In some cases, 100% of bat populations have been wiped out in infected caves. Of 46 American bat species, says Ann Froschauer of the USFWS, 26 hibernate and so are at risk. The disease "could wipe out half of the bat species in the US," she says. "It's caused one of the fastest declines of wildlife that we've seen in the US."
Bats are crucial to the ecosystem. They eat disease-carrying insects like mosquitoes and feed on crop-damaging caterpillars and worms, contributing an estimated $23 billion (pdf) annually to the agriculture industry in pest control and pollination. They also, like bees, pollinate certain plants; certain species of bat are said to be so interdependent with the agave, the source of tequila, that one might not survive without the other.
Their loss is compounded by the fact that they reproduce slowly, producing only one pup a year, explains Choffnes, and at best five pups in a lifetime--assuming they survive to adulthood. What's worse, hibernating bat species have their pups while in hibernation. It's in these caves and mines that they are most at risk for contracting WNS. And then there are other bat enemies, including pesticides, pollution, wind energy, habitat loss, and various diseases.
Funding has come mostly through the USFWS, but experts say much more is needed. In 2010, Congress gave the USFWS $1.9 million to fight WNS through research and surveillance, and to pay for an annual WNS symposium. Froschauer says that since 2007, more than $12 million from her agency has gone into response, research and coordination on WNS issues. All but the original $1.9 million, however, were reallocated funds from existing budgets. 'The money available for addressing WNS is not enough," says Mollie Matteson, a conservation advocate with the Center for Biological Diversity in Vermont. "And as the disease continues to spread westward, it becomes even more urgent that federal funds are appropriated."
Some money has also come from other federal agencies, making for a total of oer $20 million devoted to WNS, says Jocelyn Ziemian, a policy specialist for Bat Conservation International. But, she says, the government would have done more if the disease affected animals such as livestock. "But in this really bad fiscal environment," she says. "We're lucky we've gotten what we have."
The money available goes mostly to response and coordination efforts, but bat advocates say more is needed for research. It's still unclear where exactly in Europe the fungus came from, and surprisingly little is known about bats, let alone about their ecology and the infectious diseases that harm them.
The agriculture industry, which relies on bats, has not so far offered much of its own money or lobbied for government funds. Experts say this may soon change. Big farming states in the south and midwest are only just beginning to feel the effects of the bat crisis. So far, northeastern and mid-Atlantic states have suffered the most, along with provinces in Canada.