British Columbia

Funding announced to monitor white nose syndrome as bat disease reaches West Coast

In support of international bat week, which runs from Oct. 24-31, the provincial government is contributing more than $40,000 to fight white-nose syndrome (WNS).

Disease has been reported in Washington State and is expected to hit B.C. this year, says bat biologist

A brown bat with white-nose syndrome is pictured in New York. (AP Photo/New York Department of Environmental Conservation, Ryan von Linden)

B.C.'s Ministry of Environment wants to reduce the fear that bats induce, and instead encourage people to help protect the province's endangered bat population. 

In support of international bat week, which runs from Oct. 24-31, the provincial government is contributing more than $40,000 to fight white-nose syndrome (WNS).

The funding, which was announced on Friday, will go towards monitoring bat populations and improving bat monitoring guidance.

"Bats play an essential role in healthy ecosystems, which is why we need to protect them from white-nose syndrome. This additional funding will help support the fight against this invasive disease," said Ravi Kahlon, the MLA for Delta North.

WNS is a fungal disease that has been linked to the mass death of hibernating bats in North America since 2006. 

The disease is characterized by a white fungus, which grows on the muzzles and bodies of bats.

It can be spread from bat to bat, from stowaway bats in people's vehicles or from spores carried on people and equipment from areas where WNS is found, according to the ministry.

The fungus grows in cold weather, and it hits while bats are hibernating in caves and old mines through the winter, when they are most vulnerable. Experts believe the fungus was introduced in North America by a visitor from Europe, where it has existed for some time and where bats have developed resistance. (Submitted by Karen Vanderwolf/New Brunswick Museum)

Extreme declines in bat populations in eastern North America have already occurred, and, in 2016, cases were reported in Washington State. 

No cases of WNS have been found in B.C. yet, but the Ministry of Environment says it may arrive here soon.  

"The threat of WMS to our bats is extreme. Ten of our species are likely susceptible to the disease and seven of these species may likely suffer unprecedented population declines. We are working hard to observe and measure changes caused by this disease in western North America," said Patrick Burke, a bat biologist with the South Coast Bat Conservation Society.

To date, it has killed more than six million bats in five provinces and 31 U.S. states. 

Bats and biodiversity 

Bats are insectivores, working as pest control agents in forests and agricultural lands, with some species capable of eating half their body weight in insects per day.

The mammals are most active in the summer and hibernate during the winter, which is when the fungus can kill off entire colonies by causing them to wake prematurely and struggle to find food. 

According to the ministry, a mass die-off of bats would have far-reaching effects on the ecosystem and industries such as forestry and agriculture. 

"If the disease presents out here on the West Coast as it does on the East Coast, we could have severe population declines for our species out here in the West," said Burke.

White-nose syndrome causes infected bats to wake up early from their winter hibernation and die from starvation, due to a lack of insects to eat, or from exposure while searching for food. Here, bat carcasses litter a cave floor. (Submitted by Don McAlpine/New Brunswick Museum)

B.C. has the most diverse populations of bats in Canada, housing 16 of 19 species found in the country. 

The ministry says half of these bats are a conservation concern, and two of them are listed as endangered because of WNS.

They are asking British Columbians in urban and rural areas to contact the B.C. Community Bat Program if they see dead bats or unusual activity like bats flying during the day this winter.  

Corrections

  • A previous version of this story incorrectly stated that part of the new funding would go toward tagging bats. In fact it will be used for monitoring bat populations and bat monitoring guidance.
    Oct 29, 2017 11:31 AM PT

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