Much has been said about the plight of honeybees and their importance to agriculture, but less has been said about the plummeting bat population. More than one million endangered gray bats hibernate at the Fern Cave National Wildlife Refuge in Alabama, where the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service (USFWS) just confirmed that a devastating fungal disease known as white-nose syndrome (WNS) is wrecking havoc. The Center for Biological Diversity calls WNS the worst wildlife disease outbreak to hit North America and warns that the staggering loss of roughly 80 percent of the continent’s bat population could cost agriculture up to $53 billion.

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“Since the winter of 2007-2008, millions of insect-eating bats in 19 states and four Canadian provinces have died from this devastating disease,” according to the USGS.

Caused by Geomyces destructans, a white fungus that attacks the muzzle, ears, and wings of hibernating bats, the disease causes confusion in the animals, prompting them to fly during the daytime in winter when they’re supposed to be hibernating or forming clusters at the mouths of caves. And since it was carried to North America by European cave explorers roughly six years ago, the disease that affects seven species of bats has spread to 22 states and five Canadian provinces, killing a total of 6.7 million bats.

CBD bat specialist Mollie Matteson blames the US government for responding too slowly to the annihilation of North America’s bats, which she says could have a crippling impact on the region’s agriculture.

“A single bat can eat thousands of insects in one night, which benefits people, agriculture and forestry,” the CBD reports. “A recent study found that the value of bats’ pest-control services in the United States ranges from $3.7 billion to $53 billion per year.”

Paul McKenzie, Endangered Species Coordinator for USFWS, told Mother Jones that Fern Cave is the most significant colony of the IUCN-listed gray bat population. And while mass mortalities have not yet been reported, he added, the presence of WNS is very alarming.

Via Mother Jones

Images of endangered gray bats by USFWS Headquarters, and U.S. Army Environmental Command, Flickr