White-nose syndrome (WNS) is a disease that is killing bats in their hibernation sites by the thousands. Bats get infected by a cold-loving fungus that attacks their wing membranes and shows up as a white powdery substance around the bat's muzzle. The fungus causes the bats to awaken during their hibernation period, using up precious fat reserves and ultimately causing the bat to starve to death. In the eastern USA and in Canada, emaciated, infected bats have been found flying out of hibernation sites while there is still snow on the ground where they soon die.
They only figured out that it was a fungus that was causing the disease in 2009 and found it was a new species (but perhaps a variation of one found in Europe and some other cold climates). There are still a lot of unknowns about how the fungus is being spread - but fungal spores are moving around at a rapid rate. There is likely bat-to-bat transmission, but the widespread jumps it is making in the eastern USA suggest that humans are spreading the spores as well. The caving community is up on this and a number of caves are now closed (winter and summer) to protect bat hibernacula. The bat biologists working in BC have found geocaches in sites that are both hibernation sites and breeding sites (especially for the blue-listed Townsend's big-eared bat). So it is possible that geocachers could unknowingly spread fungal spores from site to site (and be entering bat habitat without knowing it).
I have geocached myself and it is a lot of fun - and from what I have learned of the community, I am sure they would be appalled if they thought they were endangering wildlife.
In the eastern US - they are getting mortality rates of 80-100% at some hibernation sites (with 100's of thousands of bats). The current estimate it that since the syndrome was first identified in 2006 - over 1 million bats have died. The biologists in the east estimated last spring that it would be on the west coast in less than a decade. It could move faster if cavers, geocachers or mines people who bring equipment from eastern Canada/US enter underground sites in western US/Canada. There is fear that some of the endangered bat species will be driven to extinction and that common species such as the little brown bat may be completely extirpated from some areas.
Here is a link to the BCBATS website and their information sheet on White-nose syndrome media.tripod.lycos.com...686417.pdf
I will try and update this thread with an updated version of this for cavers and recreationists soon - we have adapted it to a two-page brochure that you can print out and share.
The current advice is to stay out of underground locations - that means caves, mine adits etc. If you have to go in - there is a decontamination protocol for boots, clothes, and equipment involving washes with 10% bleach solution or there maybe some alcohol-based solutions that are effective. (please see the factsheet for more information or google WNS).
Feel free to pass this information along!
Thanks for your cooperation - I am sincerely worried about our bat populations in BC and the west - this really is a crisis for bats in North America.
Susan Holroyd, bat biologist and member of BCBATS