A disease known as white-nose syndrome (WNS) is decimating bat populations in the US, and in an effort to combat the epidemic, The Nature Conservancy in Tennessee is building an artificial bat cave that will act a refuge for the winged mammals. Construction began on August 23, 2012, in Montgomery County, Tennessee, near an existing bat hibernation cave. The team hopes to finish the project by the end of September so that the bats can take up residence as soon as possible.

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Located on property owned by The Nature Conservancy, the $300,000 cave will aim to curb the spread of the disease which has spread to 19 states and 4 Canadian provinces and killed more than 5 million bats. In many caves where WNS has appeared, bat colonies have been reduced by 90% or more.

WNS is a devastating fungus for which there is no known cure. It threatens to destroy most of the US’s bat species unless it is kept in check. As well as the enormous impact it would have on the country’s ecosystems, it would also hit the agricultural industry due to their pest-eating ability. In fact, the environmental group have estimated that the value of bats to Tennessee agriculture is $313 million annually and the value to the nation’s agriculture at $3.7 billion.

“WNS is a devastating disease that is hitting bats fast and hard,” said Cory Holliday, Cave and Karst Program Director for The Nature Conservancy in Tennessee. “This artificial cave not only has the potential to save a large colony of  bats from WNS, but also to serve as a model that could be replicated anywhere WNS threatens to destroy a significant colony of hibernating bats.”

The new artificial bat cave will be the first man-made hibernation cave for bats and will mainly be underground in order to replicate the cold, damp environment of nearby caves. It will also serve as a test site for WNS treatments, such as disinfectants which are known to kill the fungus believed to cause WNS, but they can harm but could harm other cave-dwelling species. As such, the artificial cave will not house other animals and can be cleared out later once the bats leave in summer.

“This is the first idea we’ve come upon that offers bats a real chance at survival without killing the other organisms that call caves home,” added The Nature Conservancy’s Cory Holliday. “Even though we haven’t yet raised all the money necessary to cover our building costs, we are forging ahead because WNS is spreading very quickly, and we don’t have other effective means to fight it.”

+ The Nature Conservancy

via ABC News

Images: The Nature Conservancy and USFWS Headquarters