ELKINS, W.Va. — It was a mid-morning in February when Craig Stihler answered his phone. Stihler, the now retired DNR biologist who was in charge of keeping tabs on bats was expecting my call while sitting in his Elkins office. He was between trips to various bat caves in West Virginia for the annual count of bats, something which has been a depressing exercise in recent years. .
“Yeah, talking to you is one of my last duties of the job,” he laughed.
Stihler and I have had a conversation every winter for the past 10 or 15 years. The conversation always centered on a story about the annual mid-winter bat survey. Up until a few years ago, it was a fairly mundane interview and the biggest topics were the condition of the endangered Virginia Big Eared and Indiana Bats. Things usually looked good and there were seldom any real changes. Stihler now wished for those long lost days as the world of bats was turned upside down in the past decade by the condition known as “white nose syndrome.”
“The report this year is an awful lot like the report in previous years,” he said. “Numbers of bats are way down. We’ve lost 97 percent of our little brown bats from the initial wave. We’ve lost Indiana bats, tri-colored bats, and several species.”
A year ago, Stihler had some hope maybe the bats which had survived were showing immunity, but this year’s survey revealed there was very little reason for optimism. The little brown bat was once the most abundant species in West Virginia until just a few years ago.
“Unfortunately what we’re seeing is even after the significant drop initially, the number of bats continue to drop,” he explained. “Numbers are not stabilizing.”
White nose syndrome is actually a fungus. It originated in Europe where bats have developed an immunity over hundreds of years. When it came to the United States it was first discovered in bat populations in caves in New York and ever since has been working its way across the nation. It’s now been verified in the entire Continental United States and wiped out millions of bats.
“By 2009 in was in West Virginia and it’s across the U.S. and it has even been found in Washington State so it’s now a continental disaster,” explained Stihler.
The tell-tale sign is a white spot on the nose, giving the ailment its name, but the conditions are much more severe according to Stihler who said the fungus causes a myriad of problems to hibernating bats.
“The fungus also affects their wings and tail membrane,” he said. “By spring their wing membrane are so destroyed they have trouble flying. It’s actually eroding the wing tissue which is something you can’t see when they are hanging up in the cave. It’s actually a pretty drastic condition.”
Scientists and biologisst continue to look for a cause, but so far have been unable to pinpoint where it lies. They’ve also been unable to do anything to slow the growth of the condition in caves across America.
Stihler, who at the time of the conversation was only days away from retirement, tried to hang onto as much optimism as he could.
“The good news is that bats we’re seeing in the caves don’t have as much fungus on them as they did when it first showed up,” said Stihler. “It looks like the bats that are surviving are resistant to some extent. The bottom line is if we have some survivors and they can resist the disease and make it through the next few years and start to repopulate, we may see bats rebound. But it’s going to take decades and centuries to completely come back.”