A deadly and highly contagious disease that has devastated bat populations in parts of Canada hasn't made it to Newfoundland and Labrador yet, and researchers with the Canadian Wildlife Health Cooperative want it to stay that way.

The co-operative's Atlantic Bat Conservation Project includes a toll-free hotline for people in Newfoundland and Labrador and P.E.I. to report sightings, ask questions or get advice on what to do if you find a bat has taken up residence in your building.

'If you see a bat outdoors in the winter, that's not normal.' - Tessa McBurney

"Especially in the winter if you do see a bat outdoors in Newfoundland," said technician Tessa McBurney, from the project's home base at the Atlantic Veterinary College in Charlottetown.

"White-nose syndrome isn't there yet, but it does affect bats in the winter, and causes them to potentially leave their hibernating sites." 

White-nose syndrome

This bat in Nova Scotia has white-nose syndrome. There is currently no cure or containment for the disease. (Jordi Segers/Canadian Wildlife Health Cooperative)

"If you see a bat outdoors in the winter, that's not normal. It could be a sign that white-nose syndrome has made its way to Newfoundland, so we really do need to know that to act fast."

Protecting the currently healthy bat population in Newfoundland and Labrador is important for the ecosystem. 

Endangered species

The mostly insect-eating mammals help control agricultural and other pests — such as moths, caterpillars, mosquitoes and flies — and McBurney said without them farmers would have to use more pesticides to grow crops. 

She said bats are listed federally as endangered, even in Newfoundland and Labrador, because of the impact of white-nose syndrome in other areas.

Bat in evening sun

A bat flies in P.E.I.'s evening sun. (Jordi Segers/Canadian Wildlife Health Cooperative)

"Bats are hard to detect, they hibernate all winter, they are only flying around at night in the summer," said McBurney.

"We just don't know where they are, so any information we can get on where their maternity colonies might be in the summer or hibernating sites in the winter is just helpful information to have." 

However, she said it is important not to enter hibernating sites because that can spread white-nose syndrome. The fungus that causes the disease grows in cold weather while bats are hibernating and most vulnerable.

Along with collecting data about sightings, researchers can also use the toll-free line to provide general information or give advice on how to safely remove a bat from your property without harming it.

Reports that require immediate assistance will be passed on to the provincial forestry and wildlife division.  

The number to call if you spot a bat is 1-833-434-BATS (2287). 

With files from Central Morning