RODALE NEWS, EMMAUS, PA—A coalition of organic farming, conservation, and anti-pesticide organizations put the Obama Administration on notice this week, giving specific agencies 30 days to take emergency action to protect bats from white-nose syndrome, a mysterious bat disease that has wiped out at least 1 million bats in just five years. If Interior Secretary Ken Salazar, Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack, and Defense Secretary Robert Gates fail to take emergency steps to close mines and caves on federal lands to slow the spread of white-nose syndrome, the group will file a lawsuit in 30 days.
"White-nose syndrome is a runaway train that's devastating bat populations across the Northeast and rapidly spreading west," says Mollie Matteson, a conservation advocate for the Center for Biological Diversity. "It’s barreling down the tracks wiping out bats, and while we don’t know how to stop it yet, we should at least use the brakes we’ve got—and fast. Those brakes are cave and mine closures."
The would-be plaintiffs include Beyond Pesticides, Center for Food Safety, Local Harvest, Nebraska Sustainable Agriculture Society, sectors of the Northeast Organic Farming Association, Organic Consumers Association, Organic Seed Growers and Trade Association, and The Endocrine Disruption Exchange (TEDX). Public health watchdog groups joined the lawsuit because if the bat die-off continues, pest problems are expected to skyrocket on farmland, prompting the use of more toxic pesticides. Organic farmers will be hit especially hard if white-nose syndrome continues to spread because chemical pesticides aren't an option. (Scientists have found that insect-devouring bats lend the equivalent of between $3.7 billion and $53 billion in pest-control services each year to American agriculture.)
To slow the potential spread of the disease by humans, the groups are demanding the government impose emergency restrictions on human access to caves and mines on federal lands, common bat hot spots.
According to the Center for Biological Diversity, the fungus that causes white-nose syndrome has been found extensively in Europe, but bats there are unaffected and appear to have evolved with the fungus. The sudden appearance and deadly spread of white-nose syndrome in North America offers compelling evidence that the disease was unwittingly brought here from Europe on the gear or clothing of a caver.
"The West’s millions of acres of public, federal land offer our best chance to preserve a reservoir of uninfected bats—if not indefinitely, then at least for a few crucial years while scientists work to find a cure," says Matteson. "Keeping people from moving the fungus into the West is a biological and moral imperative, and the time to act is now."
Here's how you can help save bats.
• "Like" this group on Facebook. Click "Like" on the Center for Biological Diversity's Save Our Bats campaign on Facebook to learn how you can help keep bats from going extinct.
• Steer clear of caves, for now. White-nose syndrome is killing bats in 19 states and 4 Canadian provinces so far, and keeping it out of the West is critical, according to conservation groups. If caving is your thing, try to put it on hold until scientists get the disease under control.
• Find out how to handle bats in your house: See Bats Endangered By Mysterious Fungus.