Friday, February 3rd, 2023
Friday, February 3rd, 2023

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Deadly bat disease found in another West Virginia cave

Morgantown, W.Va. (AP) – An expedition
into Hellhole cave in Pendleton County last month revealed that
bats in one of the largest and most important bat hibernation caves
in the state are infected with white-nose syndrome.

The cave has been off limits to people for a few years, and now,
with the recent discovery that some bats in Hellohole Cave have
white-nose syndrome, it’s part of a field study into the deadly
disease.

West Virginia Division of Natural Resources biologist Craig
Stihler has a lead role in tracking and studying white-nose
syndrome in West Virginia.

“What we’ve seen is that the most hard hit bats are probably the
little brown bat; it’s our most common bat in the state. They tend
to hibernate in areas that are fairly damp and the fungus seems to
grow very well there,” said Stihler.

“We’ve had a constant stream of bats just flying out of the cave
during the day, during snow, so they’re obviously very distressed
and fleeing the site,” he added.

Stihler says the disease was probably initially transmitted to
West Virginia bats by a caver. It’s believed that the disease can
live on cavers’ equipment. But Stihler thinks the bats have spread
it to other caves in the state.

“Last year we were estimating we had maybe 200 to 300 bats that
have died. When we were at Hellhole this year we were seeing a
stream of up to 40 bats an hour just leaving the cave, flying out.
I’m sure most of those bats just died on the landscape,” said
Stihler.

Peter Youngbaer was among a group of cavers and biologists who
went into Hellhole Cave last month to conduct a bat survey.

Youngbaer is the white-nose syndrome liaison for the National
Speleological Society. He says some good news to come out of the
survey is that the endangered Virginia Big Eared bats do not appear
to have white-nose syndrome.

“Half the known population in the world of that species lives in
Hellhole, so we were terrified that if we saw this in the Virginia
Big Eared bat, the species might be gone,” said Youngbaer.

The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service is trying to establish a
breeding colony for the Virginia Big Eared bats in case the disease
infects the population.

Seth Perlman, who lives in New York, accompanied Youngbaer into
Hellhole Cave. He hopes white-nose syndrome does not have the same
effect in West Virginia that it’s had in the North East.

“We’ve seen up to 90 percent mortality in some of the bats and
it’s manifested in caves where there are just piles of dead bats,”
Perlman said.

Perlman says not being able to cave in certain areas where
white-nose syndrome is present or could possibly be spread is a
small price to pay to try to save bats from this disease which
eventually causes them to starve to death.

“I think it would be selfish of us who enjoy caving as a
recreation to feel like we’ve gotten the short end of the stick,
because certainly we’re not dying off in mass numbers like the bats
are and knowing that the bats are an important part of the
ecosystem.”

Bats help keep the number of insects down, so Stihler says it
will be interesting to see what the insect population is like this
summer where white-nose syndrome has been found.

There is no cure or treatment for white-nose syndrome.

Stihler says anyone who sees a number of bats flying around in
the daytime this winter should contact the DNR.

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