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States get grants as disease ravages bat populations

A cluster of little brown bats hang on the rock walls of level 12 of the Soudan Underground Mine. (2008 file / News Tribune)

The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service on Monday announced more than $1 million in grants to keep fighting white-nose syndrome, the deadly fungus that continues to kill bats everywhere it spreads.

The grants go to wildlife agencies in 37 states and the District of Columbia to help find ways to slow or prevent the spread of white-nose syndrome that has killed an estimated 7 million bats across the eastern U.S. and Canada.

Minnesota gets $30,000 and Wisconsin $28,077 in this round of funding. To date the federal government has given states more than $7 million to battle white-nose syndrome over the last decade.

First discovered in New York in the winter of 2006-2007, the fungus has now spread to 33 states and five Canadian provinces. It has been especially hard on little brown and northern long-eared bats, two common species in Minnesota, and just this year was documented killing another species, the southeastern bat, for the first time.

Research is underway to find something to protect bats or kill the fungus. So far nothing has stopped the disease from spreading and killing bats in the caves and underground mines where they congregate each winter. In Minnesota, thousands of dead bats were found over the winter outside the Soudan Underground Mine, the state's largest hibernacula or wintering colony.

The Minnesota Department of Natural Resources will use the money in ongoing efforts to determine what the habitat-threatened bat species need and to monitor wintering areas for expansion of the disease. Minnesota also has been spending its own conservation funds to help track and gain more knowledge about bats even as researchers already see some bat populations declining.

White-nose syndrome is now considered the worst wildlife disease outbreak in North American history and shows no signs of slowing down. It threatens to drive some bats to extinction and could do real harm to the pest-killing services that bats provide, worth billions of dollars each year in agricultural areas of the U.S.

"Funding from the Service provides state fish and wildlife agencies with critically important support to manage and mitigate the spread of the disease to new areas of the country," said Nick Wiley, president of the Association of Fish and Wildlife Agencies and executive director of the Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission. "The Association greatly appreciates the Service's role in coordinating a national response to white-nose syndrome and the funding support for state responses to this wildlife disease crisis."