Biologists are gathering field data in Clallam County about bat populations as a deadly disease has made its mark on the West Coast starting near North Bend in King County.
According to the state Department of Fish and Wildlife, white-nose syndrome, a disease estimated to have killed over 6 million bats in eastern North America since 2006 and which can kill up to 100 percent of bats in a colony, made its first appearance on the West Coast near North Bend in 2016.
White-nose syndrome is caused by a fungus that can grow on the nose, wings and ears of an infected bat during winter hibernation. Once the bat wakes from hibernation, the fuzzy, white appearance can go away, but the fungus invades deep skin tissues and causes extensive damage.
Shelly Ament, Fish and Wildlife assistant district wildlife biologist for District 16 — including all of Clallam County and west Jefferson County — her supervisor Anita McMillan, agency staff and volunteers collected data on local bat populations earlier this month at the Dungeness Fish Hatchery, Salt Creek bunkers and a private residence west of Port Angeles where maternity bat colonies have been identified.
“We’re very interested to learn about where there could be more colonies,” Ament said.
Ament and other agency staff have been pinpointing bat populations in their district, performing bat exit counts and capturing bats to take guano (bat feces) and swab samples, and sending them in to the U.S. Department of Agriculture Forest Service Northern Research Station to be tested for white-nose syndrome.
Ament said they performed two bat exit counts at each of the three locations in her district “to get an idea of how many bats are in a site.”
In mid-April of this year, a local rehab facility that specializes in rescuing bats received a call about a bat unable to fly near North Bend. A Fish and Wildlife biologist responded and located the bat, but it died before the biologist’s arrival.
The bat was examined and showed signs of white-nose syndrome and later was tested by the USGS National Wildlife and Health Center where scientists confirmed the bat had the disease.
“It’s definitely a concern,” said Abby Tobin, a Fish and Wildlife white-nose syndrome coordinator and bat specialist.
“There are still a lot of questions about what the impacts are going to be,” Tobin said.
Tobin said Fish and Wildlife is trying to get a good handle on any declines in bat populations in Washington state by having biologists collect data and research on bat colonies across the state, including 11 counties.
She added that the cases of white-nose syndrome found last year in North Bend were the farthest west the disease has reached and that it has not been determined how the disease has spread.
Tobin said Ament and other biologists across the state are counting bats in colonies to track any decline in bat species that are susceptible to the disease, such as little brown bats and Yuma myotis — two species of bats commonly found in Washington.
Bats are beneficial to humans and help preserve the natural balance of property or neighborhoods as predators of night-flying insects such as mosquitoes, moths, beetles, termites and flies.
During this time of year, bats aggregate in maternity colonies with their babies and can roost in local residences such as chimneys or attics.
Part of the work Ament and others are doing is getting the word out to the public about white-nose syndrome and providing them information on reporting injured or sick bats.
“It’s really important to locate other bat colonies and start monitoring them for this deadly disease,” Ament said.
“This will also help us determine if there are other adverse impacts to our local bat populations.”
She encourages residents within her district to report groups of bats and sick or dead bats found in the area.
To learn more about bats and white-nose syndrome or to report bats, visit wdfw.wa.gov/conservation/health/wns.
Erin Hawkins is a reporter with the Olympic Peninsula News Group, which is composed of Sound Publishing newspapers Peninsula Daily News, Sequim Gazette and Forks Forum. Reach her at [email protected].