After they replaced their Halloween décor with inflatable Santas and reindeer, most people probably never gave another thought to bats. But this winter could be life-changing for many B.C. bats — and not in a good way.
The recent discovery of bats infected with white-nose syndrome in a location in Washington state just over the border from B.C. could spell disaster for our bat populations. The syndrome has killed millions of bats in eastern North America over the past decade, but until the Washington discovery, had not been detected on the West Coast.
A disaster for bats would also be a disaster for our economy. Bats are voracious consumers of insects. In fact, bats are the No. 1 consumer of night-flying insects. With many, many fewer bats circling our night skies, those insect populations are likely to explode, and that means significant damage to crops and trees, and even unpredictable changes to fisheries.
A U.S. study found that bats provide up to $53 billion a year in pest-control services for the agricultural sector alone in the United States.
Here in B.C., bats consume many moths that damage trees, including the caterpillars and moths of the spruce budworm.
Many of the insects that bats consume start life as aquatic larvae, which are food for many freshwater fish. Shifts in insect densities and diversity can produce similar shifts in fish species.
A massive die-off of bats is going to change these patterns in ways that are hard to predict. It might mean greater reliance on artificial pesticides in agriculture or more areas of forest stripped of vegetation. Without bats controlling biting insects such as mosquitoes, we could also see an increase in cases of insect-borne diseases, such as West Nile disease. And it will mean more pests in our garden and more uninvited guests at our summer barbecues.
Sadly, there is a very strong probability that the syndrome will flare up in B.C. this year. The disease makes the odds of winter survival extremely long for bats. Bats with the syndrome are infected with a fungus that eats at their wings and forces them to burn through their precious stored winter fat long before the return of the insect season. It spreads throughout hibernation sites, and can kill up to 90 per cent of resident bats.
Bouncing back from the devastating impact of white-nose syndrome is not going to be easy for bats.
While to some, bats seem like mice with wings, our only flying mammal has more in common with grizzly bears, bearing only one young each year and living 20 to 40 years.
In B.C., we are lucky to have the widest diversity of bat species in Canada, with at least 16 species, seven of which are found only here. But that diversity is not going to protect our bats from white-nose syndrome. We know at least two species found here have already been devastated in the east. Fourteen of the species found in B.C. hibernate, meaning the vast majority of our bats are vulnerable to the disease.
With the arrival of white-nose syndrome, it is critical that we give bats — and those who depend on their services — a fighting chance. That means identifying and protecting key habitat areas, working with industry to manage things such as old mines that bats use for hibernation, and continuing to build our knowledge of bat activity and populations across the province.
Right now, the provincial government does not have a plan for dealing with white-nose syndrome, and provincial species-at-risk staff are spread incredibly thin, with not a single provincial-level biologist having the time or the expertise to deal with bats.
We do have a plan, which we developed in partnership with other concerned biologists across B.C.
Along with the B.C. Bat Action Team, we need to swing this plan into action, but we can’t do that without the resources and support of the B.C. government.
Time is of the essence, and resources are needed to make progress. We might not be able to knock out white-nose syndrome with a single “kapow,” but if the government commits resources more in keeping with the scale of the problem, we can reduce the disease’s impact and help bats recover.
The threat is on our doorstep. Let’s not wait until it has entered the house to spring into action.
Cori Lausen is associate research scientist and bat specialist for the Wildlife Conservation Society Canada.