Ky. 'on alert' for bat disease

With cases in Tenn., arrival seems inevitable

lwilson@herald-leader.comJune 14, 2010 

A fatal bat disease has been found in Tennessee about 80 miles from Mammoth Cave National Park, but Kentucky wildlife officials have been aware and preparing for its arrival for several years.

White-nose syndrome, a disease that has killed more than 1 million bats since 2006, has been found in Dunbar Cave, which is near Clarksville, Tenn., and close to the Kentucky line, said Vickie Carson, Mammoth Cave public information officer.

Even though the disease hasn't appeared in Kentucky, wildlife experts say it's inevitable and even more likely now that it's in Tennessee, said Traci Hemberger, a wildlife biologist for the Kentucky Department of Fish and Wildlife Resources.

"We've just been lucky so far," she said.

White-nose syndrome was first found in New England and spread to areas in Pennsylvania and along both sides of the line between Virginia and West Virginia before reaching Tennessee a few months ago. The cause of the disease is unknown, but afflicted bats grow a white fungus on their noses and wings. Caves that become affected sometimes have a bat mortality rate of 90 percent or higher.

Biologists in the state are on top of the issue and will be the first to know whether the disease moves to Kentucky, Hemberger said.

An appearance of white-nose syndrome 80 miles away doesn't make Mammoth Cave officials more worried than before, Carson said.

"We've been on alert for a number of years," she said.

Park officials are drafting a response plan that will help keep the disease from arriving as well as outline how to minimize the spread if it does make an appearance.

Some people might not like bats, but they play an important role in agriculture in Kentucky by getting rid of an enormous amount of insects that eat crops, such as beetles and moths, Carson said.

The Pittsburgh Tribune-Review reported on June 6 that the disease had been confirmed within 30 miles of Mammoth Cave and that Mammoth Cave is home to some of the largest bat concentrations in the country. Both of those statements are inaccurate, Carson said.

To say that white-nose syndrome has been found within 30 miles of Mammoth Cave would have to mean it's been found in Kentucky, which it hasn't, Hemberger said.

Cal DuBrock, director of wildlife management for the Pennsylvania Game Commission, was the Tribune-Review's source for both pieces of information about Mammoth Cave. DuBrock said when he told the Tribune-Review that information, he was citing a presentation at a white-nose syndrome conference he attended in Pittsburgh.

The presenter said that a case of white-nose syndrome was found 26 miles from Mammoth Cave and that there was a fairly high concentration of bats there.

There must have been a misquote or misstatement on someone's part, DuBrock said.

"I'm not sure what the big deal is, because we've seen white-nose go as far as 500 miles," he said.

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