Dire threat to bats could impact state's economy, our health

OLYMPIA -- Wildlife biologists in our state made a disturbing discovery recently when they found a disease that could decimate the bat population in Washington.

It's called White-nose syndrome, a disease caused by a fungus that invades the skin of hibernating bats. It causes white markings around the face and wings of bats, and the mortality rate is near 100 percent.

The disease was first discovered on the East Coast 10 years ago and has been catastrophic to bat populations there.

"Since then, we’ve lost millions of bats in 28 states, and five provinces," said Chistopher Smith, with the Washington State Department of Fish and Wildlife.

The disease has been slowly moving west, but animal biologists are shocked to see it already in Washington.

"Having this 800 mile jump to Washington is a shock and it's not really well known what happened or why it's here now," said Abby Tobin, a bat expert hired recently by the state to tackle the problem.

Now that White-nose syndrome is here, bat crews are setting up acoustic monitoring and other devices to find bats and maybe figure out the spread of the disease.

It’s important not just to save bats but to keep insects in check. Just one colony of bats can eat tons of insects, bugs that would otherwise eat valuable crops.

"We’ll never meet the benefits that bats can bring to us just naturally," said Smith. " There’s not enough pesticides out there that can control insects the same way a local bat colony will."

If Zika mosquitos ever make their way to the northwest, scientists say bats and their appetites could help control the spread of the virus.

"It’s always a concern of any disease carrying insect and how we can manage that in a natural way," said Tobin.

Now she and her team are on the hunt for bat colonies, and ways to save them from this threat, and they need the public's help.

If you come across a dead bat you are being asked to contact the department of fish and wildlife. They are even asking you to contact them if you know of a place where bats congregate in your area.

You can do that at a special website the state has set up dedicated to White-nose syndrome here.