Bat epidemic spreads to Keweenaw County

KEWEENAW COUNTY – White nose syndrome, a fungal disease that has been decimating bat populations across the country, has been identified in Keweenaw County and three downstate Michigan counties.

Bill Scullon, a wildlife biologist and bat expert with the Michigan Department of Natural Resources Norway office, said the disease has recently been identified in northern long-beard bats living in the abandoned Seneca Mine and Cliff Mine shafts in Keweenaw County, and that bats from Ontonagon County are being tested.

The disease has already been confirmed in Dickinson County.

Scullon said the disease can spread quickly among cave- and mine-dwelling bats, and that tri-colored bats, big brown bats, and little brown bats – the little brown bats are about 95 percent of the Copper Country population – are also threatened by the outbreak, which researchers fear could cause some species to go extinct in the lower 48 states.

“Continental extinction for the little brown bat is entirely plausible,” Scullon said. “As of right now there’s a petition for the northern long-beard to be changed into an endangered species in October.”

White nose is a fungus that grows on bats’ noses, wings and skin. Scullon said the irritation from the fungus wakes bats up from hibernation, costing them valuable energy. They often die emerging from caves and mines to find food while it’s still too cold, though they sometimes survive for over a year after contracting the disease.

Scullon said white nose has been spreading rapidly since it was first noted in New York state in 2006, and has now been identified in 26 states and five Canadian provinces. He said an estimated seven million bats died from white nose in 2011, and the first states where white nose was identified have showed a 95 percent population decline.

“That’s what we can anticipate,” he said.

Scullon said bats are the primary night-time insect predator in Michigan, and while this summer’s large number of mosquitos is likely due mainly to a wetter than normal spring, a bat die-off will likely lead to more insects, more chemicals to control them, and huge costs to farmers. He quoted a 2011 study that estimated the value of bats’ predation to agriculture at between $528 million and $1.2 billion annually, or about $74 per acre.

Matt Portfleet, owner of the Adventure Mine in Mass City, offers tours of the mine while doing his best to protect the estimated 35,000 bats that live there.

The mine – like many in the region – has bat-friendly gates to let them in and out of the shafts safely, and for the last four years has screened customers to see if they’ve been in any other bat habitats, asking them to change clothes if necessary.

“We’re doing everything we can to keep it out. But once it’s in the mine, there’s nothing they can do to stop it,” he said.

Customers tend to be understanding of any inconvenience, he said, noting that “A lot of people aren’t fond of them and don’t want to be next to them, but it’s rare that people actually don’t like them.”

Portfleet hasn’t yet noticed a decline in bat numbers.

Hancock’s Quincy Mine Hoist Association, one of the

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