TRAVERSE CITY — Michigan is one of four states east of the Dakotas free of white-nose syndrome, a deadly disease that targets a nocturnal, flying mammal.
The disease is known to affect only bats, and, once contracted, spreads from bat-to-bat and has a mortality rate of up to 99 percent. The disease started in New York and spread west, killing millions of bats along the way.
The grave threat to the bat population caused the Fish and Wildlife Service to consider the Northern long-eared bat for endangered status. Officials with the federal agency have a year to make the final decision.
So far, Michigan and Wisconsin bats have been spared, despite the disease’s spread.
“The Great Lakes are in the way,” said Allen Kurta, a professor of biology and bat expert at Eastern Michigan University. “They’re like these huge moats that are preventing the spread directly from the east into Michigan.”
Northern Michigan’s bat population is aided by its choice hibernating habitat: mines, which are far from natural caves, Kurta said.
The disease has been staved off until now, but Kurta said it’s just a matter of time until Michigan bats are infected.
“I would not be surprised to find it this winter,” he said.
Bats are key agricultural players across the nation. They consume a massive number of bugs, often saving plants from unwanted blight.
“Obviously, that role is hugely important to people involved in agriculture and even the forest industry because they eat pests that affect trees and that kind of thing,” said Georgia Parham, a spokesperson for the Fish and Wildlife Service.
Kurta said corn and soy beans are especially vulnerable to the insects that bats eat.
Fruit growers in northwest lower Michigan aren’t concerned about local bat populations, said Duke Elsner, a small fruit educator at Michigan State University Extension.
“In any given year it’s hard to say whether they’re going to eat more pest species, indifferent species or things that we’d like,” Elsner said.
An endangered species listing would help protect the bats’ habitat and could funnel funding into research, Parham said. But, at least for now, there’s no way to stop the disease’s or save infected bats.