White-nose Syndrome, Bats, State Parks, and WMAs
What is White-nose Syndrome (WNS)?
White-nose syndrome (WNS) is a devastating, emergent disease afflicting hibernating bats that has spread from the northeast to the central United States at an alarming rate. Since 2006, hundreds of thousands of bats across multiple states have died from WNS. The disease is named for the white fungus (Geomyces destructans) seen on the muzzles, ears, and wings of affected bats. This disease poses a serious threat to bats that hibernate in caves. WNS has killed up to 95% of bats at individual sites.
Is WNS dangerous to humans?
Because it is a newly emerging disease, the human health risk from WNS is unknown but no human health concerns have been reported.
Does WNS occur in Texas?
WNS has not yet been detected in Texas to our knowledge. However, the presence of the fungus on one bat was detected in Oklahoma in May 2010.
If WNS is not present in Texas, why be concerned?
Texas, including the cave-rich Edwards Plateau region in the central Hill Country, is one of North America's most important regions for bats. Texas is home to 32 species of bats and has more public bat-viewing locations than any other state. That includes the largest known bat colony in the world, Bracken Cave near San Antonio. Our state also boasts the United State's most famous urban bat colony, the Congress Avenue Bridge in Austin. We are concerned because of the severity of the disease and the important role bats play in our environment.
Recent research shows most Texas bat species eat large amounts of agricultural insect pests, saving farmers millions of dollars. In a 2006 article in the scientific journal Frontiers in Ecology and the Environment, university researchers reported bats provided almost $1.7 million in avoided yield loss and avoided pesticide costs for cotton grown in the eight-county study region around Uvalde, Texas. Scientists say bat insect control benefits farmers into the Midwest and Canada, and that this shows the need to protect large bat colonies and promote public education and bat ecotourism.
Bats are also worth millions of dollars in nature tourism to Texas communities. According to Bat Conservation International, more than 100,000 people visit the Congress Avenue Bridge in Austin each year to witness the summer season evening bat flights, generating $10 million dollars in tourism revenue annually.
What are TPWD and other Texas authorities doing about WNS?
TPWD employees in the Wildlife and State Parks Divisions are aware of the serious threat posed by WNS to bat populations in Texas. We are coordinating with partner groups like Bat Conservation International and taking actions to protect bats in Texas.
Is TPWD closing caves and/or locations where bats may be viewed?
TPWD’s current plans are to continue public viewings of evening bat emergences at sites like Devils Sinkhole State Natural Area and Old Tunnel Wildlife Management Area. However, we intend to prohibit public entry into select wild caves with bats at TPWD sites. We want to prevent people from transporting fungal spores that could infect bats.
What about caves on private land?
Texas has numerous privately-owned caves that provide tours and bat-viewing opportunities to the public. TPWD is working with operators of these facilities to encourage them to take voluntary actions to prevent the potential spread of fungal spores.
What can I do to help monitor and prevent the potential to spread WNS in Texas?
Report any large-scale bat mortalities to TPWD, especially those that occur during the winter months. If you see dead or dying bats call a TPWD Kills and Spills Team or our 24-hour Communication Center (512-389-4848).
Given that WNS and other pathogens may be transmitted by humans, it is important to practice appropriate hygiene when engaged in activities such as caving or touring caves. The following link contains up-to-date decontamination protocols that address decontamination of caving equipment to control the spread of WNS in bats, but also provides guidelines that are applicable to decontamination with respect to other emerging pathogens. These protocols are intended for wildlife researchers but may be applicable to anyone who may enter a cave for work or entertainment.