The bleak revelation of white-nose syndrome in a bat found near North Bend could spell doom for populations of the flying mammals in this state and beyond.

Share story

Scientists have detected the first known case of white-nose syndrome in a bat in Washington — a bleak revelation that could spell doom for populations of the flying mammals in this state and beyond.

The deadly fungus — the first detection of the disease west of the Rockies — was discovered in a little brown bat found by hikers along an undisclosed trail near North Bend on March 11.

“As they were hiking along they came across a bat that was alive but very weak and unable to fly,” said Katherine Haman, a veterinarian with the Washington Department of Fish and Wildlife.

Report sick or dead bats

The state wildlife agency has created an online reporting tool and telephone hotline (800-606-8768) for the public to report observances of sick or dead bats.

The bat was taken to a PAWS shelter, where it died in a cage two days later, Haman said. Washington’s wildlife agency then sent the bat to the U.S. Geological Survey’s National Wildlife Health Center in Wisconsin, where scientists confirmed the disease.

The first detection of the disease in a Western state represents “somewhat of a game-changer,” said Jeremy Coleman of the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service. The closest state with confirmed detection of the fungus is Nebraska, about 1,250 miles away, officials said.

“The concern has always been it would show up somewhere in North America and create a new center of detection and spread from there,” Coleman said. “ … We’ve been bracing for such a jump; fortunately it hasn’t happened until now.”

Government scientists representing the Washington Department of Fish and Wildlife, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service and the U.S. Geological Survey jointly made the grim announcement in a conference call Thursday.

The disease already has killed more than 6 million bats in the Eastern United States since the mid-2000s in what one expert has described as the most precipitous decline in American wildlife in recorded history.

Extinctions are likely if the disease continues to spread, and could lead to a population explosion of mosquitoes and other insect pests normally held in check by the winged predators, scientists predict.

Such an ecological domino effect could have major implications for the spread of mosquito-borne illnesses and the health of forests and crops, officials said.

Humans or other animals are not known at this time to be susceptible to infection with Pseudogymnoascus destructans, or PD — the fungus that causes white-nose syndrome.

For scientists, the lone infected bat found in Washington raises many questions still without answers: How many bats are now infected in the Northwest? How long has the disease been here? And, how did it arrive?

First discovered in 2006 in a popular tourist cave in upstate New York, white-nose syndrome has been confirmed in bats in 28 states and five Canadian provinces. The disease also is now suspected, but still unconfirmed, in four other Midwestern, Southern and Eastern states, officials said Thursday.

Bats in Asia found to be resistant to the disease, and some North American species that are less susceptible to its effects, offer encouraging signs. But even if the disease were eradicated, bat populations already affected by it still face slow recoveries, said David Blehert, branch chief of the USGS National Wildlife Health Center’s Wildlife Disease Diagnostic Laboratories.

“But there is some hope,” Blehert said.

The disease grows on bats’ noses, ears and wings during winter hibernation. The powdery white fungus invades bats’ deep skin tissues and causes extensive damage, scientists say.

Infected bats become emaciated, experience wing damage and are prone to activity during winter when they’d normally be hibernating, even flying outside in freezing temperatures.

As white-nose syndrome has spread across North America, and now into the West and Canada, it has been found to kill up to 100 percent of bats in a colony during hibernation. At least seven cave-hibernating bat species in Eastern North America are afflicted with the disease, including two types that also make their home in Washington: little brown bats and big brown bats.

An additional 11 bat species known to roost in caves or mine shafts are potentially at risk in this state, according to Washington’s wildlife agency.

People likely have helped the disease spread, as spelunkers (cave explorers) and miners can transport the fungus on shoes or gear, scientists have said. In fact, there have been hints that the fungus — similar to a less-harmful version found in Europe — may have hitched a human ride to the United States.

In turn, federal and state agencies have closed caves and abandoned mines where bats hibernate across much of the East. They also strongly encourage those who visit caves, mines or bat roosts to follow decontamination protocols after such visits.

State and federal agencies have spent about $50 million to date in a coordinated response to manage and research white-nose syndrome, Coleman said.

It’s too early to say whether any caves may be closed in Washington, said Penny Becker, a wildlife diversity manager for the Washington Department of Fish and Wildlife. State wildlife officials are conducting surveys and taking samples of bats in the North Bend area where the infected animal was found, to better understand the prevalence of the disease, she said.

“Our bats spend a significant amount of time not just in caves — they’re a little bit different than the bats on the East Coast,” Becker said.

Washington’s bats often roost in rock crevices, buildings and a host of other areas, so spread of the disease can’t be contained by simply closing a few caves, Becker said.

Wildlife officials advise people never to touch or handle a bat and to avoid entering caves or mines where they may roost, to prevent disturbing them or potentially spreading white-nose syndrome to unaffected areas.

Any bats collected will be sent for screening to the National Wildlife Health Center, Becker said.