Bats for the Future Fund to Slow the Spread of White-Nose Syndrome
The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service (USFWS) and the National Fish and Wildlife Foundation (NFWF) announced the creation of the Bats for the Future Fund on October 27, 2016. It is a competitive grant program that will fund the development of treatments for white-nose syndrome (WNS) to promote the survival of bats in North America. USWF has pledged $1 million to seed the fund in hopes of fighting the disease that is decimating bat populations across the country.
Bats play key roles as controlling insect pests. Recent studies estimate that bats eat enough pests to save the U.S. corn industry more than $1 billion a year in crop damage and pesticide costs. To all agricultural production, it is more than $3 billion per year.
Over the past decade, more than 6 million bats have died from white-nose syndrome. In some sites, up to 100% of bats have disappeared.
“It’s devastating — in some caves, where we have found it, it’s killed more than 95% of the bats found in that cave. It’s heartbreaking,” said Wendi Weber of the Wildlife Service.
The signs of the disease were first observed in New York in 2006, but has spread rapidly from the Northeast to the Midwest, Southeast and eastern Canada. According to USFWS, it has a 90-100% mortality rates among bats. Bats suffering from the disease typically show white fungus on their muzzles and wings, and exhibit strange behavior before their demise.
“The threat posed by white-nose syndrome can’t be overstated. It is the single biggest threat to many North American bats and one of the most pressing conservation challenges facing America’s wildlife today,” said U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service Director Dan Ashe. “Investing in defeating this disease must be a priority, and the Bats for the Future Fund will provide a tangible way for organizations to engage in these critical efforts.”
The disease is caused by a cold-loving fungus that attacks the hibernating bats. More than half of the bat species in the United States and Canada are potentially susceptible. Without a solution, several bat species may be in danger of extinction.
Bats for the Future Fund will focus grant funding on existing and new disease treatments and tools urgently needed as White-Nose Syndrome continues to spread across North America. It is currently causing the greatest bat population declines, particularly in the Midwest. Ideally, potential treatments will reduce the disease’s effects and improve survival of bats exposed to the disease.
“We are excited to launch the Bats for the Future Fund to support key actions that will make a difference for the survival of bats nationwide,” said Jeff Trandahl, executive director and CEO of NFWF. “Bats play a critical role in nature from Maine to Florida, and from Texas to Washington state. The Bats for the Future Fund will fund organizations across the country working to slow the spread of white-nose syndrome.”
Adding to funding from USFWS, the U.S. Forest Service has committed a minimum of $100,000 for the Bats for the Future Fund in its first year.
“Since the emergence of white-nose syndrome, the Forest Service has been an important partner in efforts to slow the spread of this devastating disease, and to understand the fungus and investigate ways to combat it,” said Leslie Weldon, Deputy Chief for National Forest System, USFS. “We are pleased to partner with the Bats for the Future Fund to work with public and private landowners to contain white-nose syndrome before it reaches new bat species and populations in the south and west.”
The funds will be distributed through an annual competitive grant solicitation and selection process, working with an advisory committee comprised of government agency representatives and other leading bat experts.
New Report Argues We’re Hunting the World’s Mammals to Death
Last month, the first comprehensive study on global bushmeat consumption found that 113 species in Southeast Asia have dwindled to precarious numbers, primarily due to bushmeat hunting and trapping. But while this region may be one of the worst affected, the study also reports that it is driving many of the world’s mammals around the globe to the brink of extinction.
“The large mammals are much more threatened than the small ones,” says lead author William Ripple, a professor of ecology at Oregon State University. “This is likely because there is more meat on large mammals.”
Ripple was studying the global decline of large carnivores when he realized that one of the major problems was that predators compete for prey with humans. He and his coauthors went through the descriptions of 1,169 mammals listed as threatened with extinction on the International Union for Conservation of Nature’s database. Out of the 1,169 mammals, 301 were listed as primarily at threat due to hunting. One particular group suffering is primates, with some 126 species including lowland gorillas, chimpanzees, bonobos, and lemurs making the list.
“Our analysis is conservative,” Ripple adds. “These 301 species are the worst cases of declining mammal populations for which hunting and trapping are clearly identified as a major threat. If data for a species were missing or inconclusive, we didn’t include it.”
According to Jam Kamler, the Southeast Asia leopard program coordinator for Panthera, most Cambodian hunters who use blanket snaring look to sell to the bushmeat market, primarily hunting pigs or deer. However, tigers and the Indochinese leopard also fetch a high price tag on the traditional medicine market, making them a welcome bycatch.
“These large felids move over such a large area that if there’s blanket snaring going on within several pockets of your home range, they’re eventually going to step in a snare,” Kamler argues. “You’re going to wipe them all out that way.”
In addition to hunting, habitat destruction also pushes animals towards extinction. Roads cut through jungles fro the purpose of logging, giving hunters access to otherwise secluded areas. And although modern technology like better guns and vehicles give poachers another advantage, Kamler argues that this really isn’t a problem. “You have to see the animal, you have to see it well—you know exactly what you’re shooting at. With a snare, you set thousands and you catch whatever.”
Donald Waller, a professor of botany and environmental studies at the University of Wisconsin, says that Ripple’s report helps give a comprehensive picture of the global problem of bushmeat hunting. “The empty forest syndrome is one of the hardest challenges we face in conservation,” he says. “It’s not enough to have a forest we can see from satellite and space.”
Majority of these species are from developing nations.
“In the developed world there’s commonly a lack of large carnivores because the humans have eradicated them,” Ripple explains. The results of his study suggests that if we don’t act fast, the rest of the world will follow suit.
But, Waller argues that developed countries are still affected. Since most of the large predators have already been wiped out in many parts of the North American continent, there is unchecked population growth of the few large mammals that are left. “Deer are the only large mammal most people are likely to see. And yet overabundant deer are now causing great reductions in tree regeneration, big changes in plant community structure, probably increases in the incidences of diseases—tick-borne diseases in particular,” he mentions.
Ripple and his coauthors say that a solution could be giving local communities incentives to switch to protein-rich plant crops. International policy must be changed to put pressure on countries to curb the demand for bushmeat and medicinal products from animals, and local communities must be empowered to “capture the benefits from wildlife conservation with legal user rights over wildlife,” according to the study.
Kamler considers the results of the study to be a wake-up call about the problems caused by snaring. Individual hunting of wild pigs are, for example, is sustainable because they reproduce rapidly. Instead, the problem is with the indiscriminate techniques, like blanket snaring and electrified fences. “Until governments formally acknowledge this imminent threat to their wildlife, it will be business as usual and little will be done to address the extinction crisis caused by the ever-expanding bush meat trade.”
Aerial Survey Might Be Inaccurate, Underestimating Numbers
As lead researchers in the recent Great Elephant Census, wildlife ecologists Curtice Griffin and Scott Schlossberg at the UMass – Amherst evaluated elephant counting methods in the wild with Mike Chase. In a paper this month, the three authors suggest that the two main census methods now in use may be undercounting elephants, causing population estimates from both to be biased low.
“Because factors such as observer and habitat affected detectability of elephants, comparisons of elephant populations across time or space may be confounded,” they write. They encourage survey teams to incorporate “detectability analysis” in all aerial surveys for mammals and suggest that researchers “should assume that their results are biased low by at least 10-15 percent and possibly more.”
To address this issue, the researchers used two approaches when assessing the accuracy of aerial surveys for African savanna elephants in northern Botswana. With the first, double-observer sampling, two observers make observations on the same herds, determining if elephant herds are being missed by observers.
Griffin says, “You would think that an animal as big as an elephant would be easy to spot from a plane, but factors such as herd size and habitat type can affect the ability of observers to see elephants from a small plane traveling at over 100 miles per hour, 300 feet off the ground.”
In the second part of their study, the researchers used a helicopter for a total count of all elephants in study areas to compare to their sample counts from fixed-wing aircrafts. Overall, total counts were not statistically distinguishable from sample counts. However, they did report that observers typically detected about only 76% of elephant herds and 87% of individual elephants actually present. They concluded that “our population estimates based on sample counts were approximately 13 percent below the actual values.”
“These findings are consistent with past research indicating that observers on aerial surveys miss some large animals,” Griffin and colleagues add. “Even animals as large as elephants are not all detected.”
Furthermore, the authors argue that “undercounting is important to recognize because imperfect detectability can induce spurious trends in time series,” and concerns about changes in detectability “are not merely hypothetical.”
Because biased trend estimates could affect conservation efforts and lead to misallocation of resources, it is important to obtain numbers as accurate as possible. Thus, assessing elephant detectability and correcting counts for vegetation, observers, herd size, and other factors should become a standard part of survey protocols. More study will be needed to determine the amount of undercounting for other species and factors affecting their detectability.
Griffin, Schlossberg and Chase used the most accurate, up-to-date survey and statistical methods to analyze data for the two-year, $8 million African census funded by philanthropist Paul G. Allen. Despite possible low population estimates, census results reported in August confirmed massive declines in elephant numbers over the last decade, including an annual 8 percent species decline rate, mainly due to poaching.