SPRINGFIELD, Ill. (AP) — A disease that decimated bat populations in the eastern United States has been detected in Illinois, raising concerns for the environment and the agricultural industry.
Two laboratories confirmed the presence of the fungal disease known as white-nose syndrome, the Illinois Department of Natural Resources announced Thursday. The disease, fatal to several bat species, was found in bats from four counties: LaSalle in north-central Illinois, Monroe in southwestern Illinois and Hardin and Pope in the far southern part of the state.
Researchers are especially concerned about the disease because bats play a crucial role in the environment, devouring huge quantities of agricultural pests, which likely saves that industry billions of dollars a year in the U.S., said Joe Kath, endangered species manager for the department.
"Although its arrival was anticipated, the documented spread of WNS into Illinois is discouraging news, mainly because there is no known way to prevent or stop this disease in its tracks," Kath said.
White-nose syndrome is not known to affect people, pets or livestock. The name of the disease refers to the white fungal growth found on the noses of infected bats.
The disease has now been detected in 20 states, most of them in the eastern U.S., as well as five Canadian provinces. White-nose syndrome spreads rapidly and has the potential to infect half of the bat species in North America, the department said.
Currently, it affects seven hibernating bat species. The disease rouses them from their winter slumbers more often than normal, leaving the animals dehydrated and hungry and damaging their connective tissues, muscles and skin. Unable to find insects to eat in the winter, they starve or freeze to death.
The disease has killed more than 5.7 million cave-dwelling bats in the eastern third of North America. It has been spreading south and west.
Illinois and several other Midwestern states are home to many endangered bat species and some of the largest hibernating bat populations in the country.
Bats play a critical environmental role, gobbling up thousands of tons of potentially harmful forest and agricultural pests each year, including mosquitos.
While researchers search for a way to fight white-nose syndrome, federal and state officials have focused on trying to contain the disease.
The Illinois Department of Natural Resources has kept caves it owns or manages closed because officials believe the fungus that causes the disease can be carried among caves by humans on clothing, footwear and caving gear.