DANE COUNTY, Wis. - A Wisconsin Department of Natural Resources bat expert believes it is not a matter of if, but when White-Nose Syndrome - a plague that has killed millions of the flying mammals in eastern North America - will arrive in the state.
The disease, which was first documented in 2006 in New York, has killed more than 5 million bats; and last February, it was found in northern Illinois, easily bat-flying distance to Wisconsin. Since then, genetic evidence has been found in Minnesota.
The Badger State has a lot to lose. It is the winter home to at least 250,000 hibernating bats, and the Wis. DNR is doing what it can to prevent the spread of WNS and to spot the disease's arrival.
"I hate to say it; but yea, we do believe it's coming. We've been preparing for this since 2010," says Paul White, conservation biologist with the Wis. DNR.
Facing the threat of WNS, White's crew has doubled its efforts to monitor Wisconsin's bat population.
"The Midwest - as far as Minnesota, Wisconsin and the Upper Peninsula of Michigan - we have kind of the last concentration of little brown bats in the world," White says.
At dusk on a July night a few miles west of Madison, Wis., White's crew sets up a couple of gigantic nets along a treelined ridge.
White looks up in the fading light and enthusiastically shouts, "They're flying above us, right there."
The group's goal this night is to catch bats, collect data and look for evidence of the deadly disease.
"Actually, I think the Fish & Wildlife Service said it best: It's really the most catastrophic decline in North American wildlife in recorded history," says Jennifer Redell, cave and mine specialist with the Wis. DNR.
With proper gear, including headlamps, and precautionary vaccinations, Redell, White and others wait for their first catch.
It doesn't take long for the first bat to get hung up in the net. More bats follow.
As White handles one of the bats, he whispers, "Come on, sweetie."
White then holds up the bat and extends a wing in front of a co-worker's headlamp.
"We're seeing if there's any wing damage associated with the fungus. This wing looks great," White declares.
While that bat is OK, no cure exists for WNS; and humans cannot stop bat-to-bat contact in mines or caves.
"So when the disease hits these sites, it's just spreading like wildfire," Redell explains.
However, the Wis. DNR can try to help influence human behavior at places like Crystal Cave just east of Minneapolis-St. Paul.
As visitors enter they must pass a sign that asks if they have visited other caves. Experts believe spores can be carried on clothing or gear.
Cave employees also give visitors a quick tutorial on WNS during tours.
Kris Stephens, a visitor from Whitehall, Wis., admits it was news to her. "I had never heard of it until I got here to Crystal Cave today," Stephens says and then takes a quick breath as a bat whizzes by. She continues, "There went one."
"It's true; people don't know; and that's a problem," says cave owner Eric McMaster.
Hundreds of bats winter here, and McMaster's crew helps the Wis. DNR inspect the creature's health during hibernation.
"They're really no different than a songbird. If you can imagine, if the songbirds had a disease that was killing all of them, what kind of uproar there would be," McMaster says.
Bats eat bugs
Bats certainly are sweet music to U.S. farmers. Government and university researchers estimate that bats provide up to $53 billion in pest control each year.
However, the pest protection goes beyond the fence post. "Bats are a primary predator for night-flying insects, for forestry pests, but then also human pests as well, such as mosquitos," White says.
No bat plague here
On that July evening near Madison, White's crew captures 24 of those insect-eating machines. No sign of the bat plague that night.
For the Wis. DNR crew, the failure to find WNS here buys time - more time to find a cure.
As White puts it, "The fact that we're actually catching bats at a regular basis, compared to out East where they'd set up a net and may not catch anything all night, this is a good sign.
(Copyright 2013 by KARE. All Rights Reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.)