By MEGAN AHERN and ALEXANDRA DUBIN/Montana State News

A deadly fungal disease that is easily communicable has scientists across the country stumped devising methods to prevent or slow its spread. Currently, their best efforts focus on tracking the disease to predict where it will strike next. Once signs of the disease become evident, it doesn’t take long for the victim to suffer an excruciating death by exhaustion or starvation. It may sound like the plot to a bad horror movie, but white-nose syndrome is all too real.

Though this disease isn’t communicable to humans, it remains a cause for concern.

White-nose syndrome is a disease that affects the bat population across North America and is caused by the fungus Pseudogymnoascus destructans. Since its arrival in Albany, New York in 2006, the United States Geological Survey, USGS, estimates that it has killed over 6 million bats in seven different hibernating species.

Brandi Skone, a Montana Department of Fish, Wildlife and Parks wildlife biologist who studies northern long-eared bats, has seen first-hand the damage white-nose syndrome can do. Northern long-eared bats, once considered one of the most prevalent bat species in North America, were recently listed as federally threatened due to population declines caused by the fungus.

White-nose syndrome cannot directly affect humans, but it is expected to have devastating economic impacts. In 2011, the USGS estimated that insectivorous bats like those affected by white-nose syndrome, save the agriculture industry over $3 billion annually in pest control.

Paul Cryan, a USGS research scientist, called the effect bats have historically had on the agricultural industry in America, “obviously beneficial,” and warned that the recent population decline due to white-nose syndrome, exceeding 90 percent in some cases, should be expected to cause noticeable economic losses to North American agriculture in the coming years.

“Bats eat tremendous quantities of flying pest insects, so the loss of bats is likely to have long-term effects on agricultural and ecological systems,” said Justin Boyles, a researcher with the University of Pretoria. “Conservation of bats is … in the best interest of national and international economies.”

Needless to say, as white-nose syndrome continues to advance, the agriculture industry will be forced to make major changes in money allocation, spending more money on pest control that previously could have been used to purchase fertilizers and equipment.

Further, increased use of pesticides will ultimately increase the total cost of pest control as pests become resistant to the chemicals used through genetic mutation, according to the Montana Private Pesticide Certification Manual.

Agriculture is Montana’s No. 1 industry, so dilemmas such as changes in pest control methods and reallocation of money present pertinent problems that merit immediate action. Without northern long-eared bats, which could see extinction within the decade according to the USGS, valuable Montana crops such as barley will be left to face formidable pests such as the cereal beetle.

While the agricultural industry will by far take the largest hit from the reduction of bat occurrence, the tourism industry is also anticipated to be affected.

The gypsy moth and the Siberian moth are aggressive defoliators, the former affecting deciduous trees and the latter affecting evergreen trees, according to the Montana Dept. of Agriculture. Unchecked by bat consumption, their populations are expected to soar, creating unsightly forests that are undesirable for recreation and tourism.

The USDA Forest Service has studied the gypsy moth extensively over the last century to develop management strategies to eradicate the pest. Partnering with private landowners, the Forest Service has sprayed several million acres with a pesticide developed to prevent gypsy moth destruction. As bat populations continue to decline, more money will need to be spent to combat the gypsy moth.

The University of Montana released data in 2013 stating that tourism hugely supplements the state’s economy in several ways. Tourists traveling to and through Montana in the summer months spend a significant amount of money. Seasonal tourism also creates jobs for residents of Montana.

One of Montana’s most attractive options for tourists is exploring the state’s wide variety of national forests, public recreation lands, wilderness areas, and national parks. Without the beautiful scenery these places currently offer, fewer tourists will travel to Montana and the state’s tourism industry will drop significantly, according to the Montana Dept. of Agriculture.

Many bat species in Montana are on the fast track to extinction, and until white-nose syndrome no longer poses such an immediate threat to them, population recovery is not likely, according to the USGS.

Currently, most efforts focus on tracking and observing the disease to help develop a better understanding of the nature of the fungus and prevent future outbreaks, according to the USGS. For that reason, officials working through Montana Fish, Wildlife & Parks urge individuals who discover an infected bat – or five or more dead bats in one area – to report it immediately.

Always use numerals when speaking of millions, billions or trillions, even if it is less than 10.

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