A bat-killing fungus has been found in two more Washington counties, indicating white-nose syndrome is spreading on both sides of the Cascades, according to the Washington Department of Fish and Wildlife.
The fungus was detected recently in guano from bat colonies in Snohomish County in Western Washington and Chelan County in Central Washington. Previously, the fungus had been confirmed in King, Lewis and Pierce counties west of the Cascades and Kittitas County to the east.
“These findings are concerning and suggest the fungus that causes white-nose syndrome continues to spread in Washington,” Fish and Wildlife white-nose syndrome coordinator Abby Tobin said in a statement.
The fungus pseudogymnoascus destructans causes white-nosed syndrome. The fungus attacks the skin of hibernating bats and damages their wings. Infected bats often leave hibernation too soon, leading to starvation, according to Fish and Wildlife.
White-nosed syndrome was first detected in the U.S. in New York in 2006. It gradually moved West until it jumped from Nebraska to Washington in 2016 and was found 30 miles east of Seattle. The disease has now been found in 35 states. Washington Fish and Wildlife has confirmed the fungus in more than 70 bats.
Bats eat night-flying insects, controlling the population of pests harmful to agriculture. White-nose syndrome has killed millions of bats in the U.S. Some scientists have said it may be the most devastating disease to wildlife mammals in recent history.
“The impacts are remarkable,” said U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service bat biologist Jonathan Reichard, assistant national coordinator of the agency’s white-nose syndrome program.
Washington Fish and Wildlife biologists collected the guano from a mixed Yuma myotis and little brown bat colony in Snohomish County and a little brown bat colony in Chelan County. The fungus also has been found in the Western long-eared bat and Fringed myotis bat.
“We’re concerned this eventually may lead to population declines in Yuma myotis, little brown bat and other bat species vulnerable to the disease,” Tobin said.
The fungus primarily spreads from bat to bat, but humans can also pick up and spread the fungus on their clothing and equipment. The fungus somehow leaped to Washington, perhaps carried by a migratory bat or a sick bat hitching a ride, Reichard said.
The fungus grows in cold and moist conditions and inflict bats hibernating in cold and moist caves. Scientists are looking for ways to kill the fungus without killing bats.
Researchers are testing fumigating caves with chemicals. Other research involves spraying bats with probiotics to boost their immune system or antifungal cream. Other research involves lights and chemicals to draw insects to where bats are hibernating to help bats fatten up and ward off the fungus.
Reichard said he was optimistic effective methods will soon be identified. In Washington, boosting the health of bats holds promise, he said.
Attacking the fungus itself will be difficult because bats in Washington hibernate in many places rather than cluster in caves, he said. “We’re not going to eradicate this fungus. This fungus will be with us forever, most likely.”