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Bat population in peril ; Deadly disease threatens several species with extinction

Standing about 100 feet inside the dark, damp cave, Kenneth J. Roblee scanned the jagged limestone walls and then checked the cave's floor, looking for bats or bat carcasses.

"My worry is that someday we're going to call this cave the place where bats used to live," said Roblee, a wildlife biologist for the state Department of Environmental Conservation. "Bats are facing a very serious situation right now."

Roblee is not alone in worrying about the future of bats.

A disease called white nose syndrome, first discovered in caves near Albany and Cooperstown four years ago, is spreading and killing bats all over North America.

Why should people care about a disease that kills bats?

Unless you like mosquitoes and other flying bugs, you should be concerned.

"Bats are the main predator of a lot of nighttime insects, including moths, mosquitoes and other pests. They also eat a lot of insects that can destroy corn and other crops," said Jeremy T.H. Coleman, national coordinator for the U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service's efforts to control the disease. "Bats play an important role in our ecology."

Federal officials estimate that white nose syndrome has killed at least a million bats in the United States and Canada, and several species of bats -- including those most common in Western New York -- are threatened with extinction.

Signs of the disease first surfaced in this region in February, when the DEC found some bats killed by the disease at the cave Roblee was exploring in Akron. It is the largest bat cave in the region, where thousands of bats hibernate for the winter.

The average bat can eat up to 75 percent of its body weight in insects every day, and it is believed that hundreds of millions of the flying creatures live in North America, said Coleman, whose project is headquartered in Cortland.

More than 100 government agencies and universities are working on the disease problem, but so far, they do not know what causes it, where it came from or how to stop it from killing more bats.

Recently, there have been some promising laboratory tests on bats that have been swabbed with an anti-fungal substance, but scientists have a lot more work to do, Coleman said.

As of last year, signs of white nose syndrome had been found in nine states, including New York, Vermont, Pennsylvania and West Virginia. This year, that number is up to 14, as far west as Missouri.

"We're looking at huge population declines, and possible extinction of some species of bats," Coleman said, if scientists cannot control the disease.

So far, the affected bats are those that hibernate in caves during the winter. Another species of bats, that live in trees and migrate to warmer climates during the winter, have not been affected.

One of the threatened species is called the little brown bat, and it is the species most often seen in Western New York.

Roblee recently took a reporter and photographer from The Buffalo News into the Akron cave, which is believed to be the region's largest winter dwelling for little brown bats and other hibernating bats.

The tour was given on the condition that The News not publish the specific location. State officials do not want large numbers of people going into the cave to look for bats.

Thick heavy gates have been installed at the openings to the cave, which is more than a quarter-mile deep and has several different chambers. But within the past few months, someone has busted the lock on one of the gates and has been using the cave as a party room.

Walking is not an easy task in the cave, which has sharp, jagged rocks sticking up from the floor. Much of the floor is covered by long puddles, several inches deep.

"It's not a safe place for people to be partying I would not want my kids in here," Roblee said. "You can see that there have been some rockfalls as big as pianos in here, and some of them have been recent. It could be very dangerous."

No bats were found on the day of The News' visit, but Roblee didn't expect to find them. Most bats stay away from the cave during warm weather, he said.

"The bats use this cave for hibernation in the winter. It provides them with weather protection, and the temperature usually stays between 34 and 44 degrees, even in the coldest part of the winter," Roblee said. "In the summer, they leave the cave, and sleep in trees, attics and other places."

The Akron cave is one of only two known "hibernacula" -- caves where bats sleep through the winter -- in Western New York. The other is in Livingston County, and there are about 60 such places throughout the state.

Several Akron residents, questioned at random, said they were surprised to hear that there is a bat cave in their community. They were also unaware of the disease that is killing the bats.

But Shirley Jones, 84, said she has been aware of the cave for decades.

"We lived near it for a long time, and I wouldn't let my kids play over there. It could be dangerous," said Jones, who has lived in Akron since the 1940s.

Although many people are frightened of bats, the creatures also have a strong nationwide fan base. Organizations such as Basically Bats and the North American Bat Conservation Partnership are made up of bat enthusiasts who enjoy studying and watching them.

White nose syndrome is the worst bat-killing disease in recorded history, according to the DEC. The most obvious symptom of the disease is a white fungus that encircles the nose of many bats.

"What we've seen so far is unprecedented," said Alan Hicks, a DEC expert on the disease. "We have bat researchers, laboratories and caving groups working to understand the cause of the problem and ways to control it. Until we know more, we are asking people to stay away from bat caves."

"It's a real mystery right now, and there's no end in sight," said Diana Weaver, a spokeswoman for U.S. Fish & Wildlife. "That's what makes it so disturbing."

e-mail: dherbeck@buffnews.com

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