Fatal bat disease confirmed in Kentucky

Called 'most significant' threat to wildlife in Ky.

gkocher1@herald-leader.comApril 14, 2011 

Little brown bats with white-nose syndrome were found in a cave in New York in 2008. The disease was first detected in that state in 2006 and has killed more than a million bats in eastern North America.

A fatal bat disease has been confirmed in Kentucky for the first time, state and federal officials said Wednesday.

White-nose syndrome was confirmed in a little brown bat from a cave in Trigg County in Western Kentucky, about 30 miles southeast of Paducah.

The disease was first detected in New York state in 2006 and has killed more than 1 million cave-dwelling bats in eastern North America. With confirmation of the disease in Kentucky, 16 states and three Canadian provinces have now been affected.

"This is likely the most significant disease threat to wildlife Kentucky has ever seen," Jonathan Gassett, commissioner of the Kentucky Department of Fish and Wildlife Resources, said in a news release.

The cause of the disease is unknown, but afflicted bats grow a white fungus on their noses and wings. Caves that become infected have a bat mortality rate of nearly 100 percent, officials said.

Anticipating arrival of the disease in Kentucky, biologists have taken measures to limit its spread. The disease is known to be transmitted from bat to bat, but fungal spores might be inadvertently carried to caves by humans on clothing and caving gear.

State and federal agencies took measures to limit potential human movement of the disease. Those included increased education on decontamination procedures, surveillance, monitoring, and cave closures on private, state and federal lands. In 2009, Kentucky was the first state to develop a response plan to address the disease.

The privately owned cave in Trigg County where the suspect bat was found is used as a hibernating spot for six bat species, including the endangered Indiana bat. The cave also is a summer roost for endangered gray bats.

Officials checked caves within a 16-mile radius, and no other infected sites were found. In winter, the Trigg County cave is used by more than 2,000 bats.

Measures were taken to limit the spread of the disease beyond the Trigg County cave. Those included removing and euthanizing 60 "highly suspect" little brown bats and tri-colored bats that were not expected to survive.

"It would be professionally irresponsible to take no action to stop or slow this disease," Gassett said in a statement. "Bats are an important part of our natural environment, acting as pollinators and consuming mosquitoes and other insect pests across the landscape.

"We plan to aggressively manage this threat ... as it occurs in Kentucky in order to protect and conserve our bat populations."

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