To the editor:

Some of our bat species in North America are facing the grim prospect of extinction because of a disease called white-nose syndrome. The disease has already killed more than 1 million bats in the in the eastern United States, and now it's threatening to move into the West.

Losing bats means not only losing fascinating creatures of the night but some of the most effective insect eaters that we have. In fact, scientists recently calculated that the pest-control services of bats are worth a whopping $3.7 billion to $5.3 billion annually to American agriculture.

Scientists believe the bat disease is caused by a fungus that was introduced to North America. Bats in Europe have been found with the fungus, but they don't get sick, so they probably evolved immunity over a long period. Since bats don't migrate across the Atlantic, the likeliest explanation is that people carried the new fungus to this continent on caving gear or clothing. The human transport of invasive species has repeatedly proved catastrophic for native wildlife and plants, and the situation behind white-nose syndrome appears to be no different.   

I support efforts to restrict human access to caves and abandoned mines. So far, this is the only guaranteed way scientists know of to stem the potential spread of white-nose syndrome by people. The threat of the fungus being carried into a whole new region, like the West, is particularly frightening. For avid cavers, putting aside recreational caving is a big sacrifice, but for bats, it's a matter of life and death. I hope people can see the bigger picture and stay out of caves for now.  Do it for the bats, for farmers and for all of us who may be swatting more bugs in the coming years.

Photo © Robin Silver