New estimates calculate that between 5.7 million and 6.7 million bats have died because of a White Nose Syndrome epidemic in the eastern United States and Canada.
The figure replaces a previous assumption that at least 1 million bats had been killed by the fungal infection. But the new number, and how it was reached, has ratcheted up the debate over how best to protect the flying insectivores.
“Although it’s a really big increase, it wasn’t a surprise to us,” said Ann Froschauer, White Nose Syndrome communications leader with the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service. “The 1 million number was stated in 2009, and we hadn’t really updated that number for the last three hibernation seasons. We’ve had several years of significant disease spread. So that’s the estimated number of bats killed since winter 2006 to present, not including this winter.”
What that number means is less clear. It was part of congressional testimony that helped justify $4 million for White Nose Syndrome research in the 2012 federal budget. But it hasn’t narrowed the gap between wildlife advocates and cave explorers on the policy question of closing caves to the public.