White-nose syndrome threatens South Dakota bat populations

White-nose syndrome was recently confirmed in bats found in South Dakota’s Black Hills, as well as Badlands National Park. Until the summer of 2018, the disease had not been reported in South Dakota but had been confirmed in surrounding states.

White-nose syndrome is a lethal fungal disease that causes skin lesions in infected bats and causes them to burn the excess fat that is required for bats to survive winter hibernation. According to biologicaldiversity.org, the disease was first confirmed in the U.S. in 2006 and has since killed approximately 6.7 million bats.

According to an Interagency News Release published in June 2018, there are now 11 species confirmed with white-nose syndrome, two of which are native to South Dakota. These species include the Long-legged bat and the Western Small-footed bat.

Richard Truex, regional wildlife biologist with the USDA Forest Service, said “Conservation of bats requires all of us to think into the future, to think about what needs to be done today to ensure bats are with us for decades to come. We’re working closely with other agencies, cave users and local communities to responsibly protect bats from unnecessary exposure to this killing fungus and to limit disturbance of bats to give them a fighting chance against the disease.”

Protecting bats from white-nose syndrome is crucial. According to the Interagency News Release, “Bats are important for healthy ecosystems and contribute at least $3 billion annually to the U.S. agriculture economy through pest control and pollination.” Therefore, any disturbance to South Dakota’s bat population could be detrimental, as South Dakota’s economy relies heavily on agriculture.

Government agencies and independent researchers are working together to further understand the disease and how it spreads. No cure for white-nose syndrome exists. Therefore, work can only be done to control the disease, rather than eradicate it.

The White-Nose Syndrome Response Team explains on their website that there are existing experimental treatments, such as vaccines, being tested and alterations are being made to bat habitats but no treatment has been confirmed to work.

While researchers work to find a cure for white-nose syndrome, local agencies will continue to work to protect and conserve local bat populations. Both Jewel Cave National Monument and Wind Cave National Park will provide public education on the disease, as well as work to decontaminate local bat colonies while continuing normal recreation activities.