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Deadly, spreading bat fungus could damage Minnesota industries

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A fast-spreading and difficult-to-predict fungus is killing millions of bats across the United States – and some say Minnesota's economy could suffer, whether measures are taken to protect the bats or not.

White-nose syndrome is a disease that affects hibernating bats, named for the powdery white substance that appears on the nose and other parts of the animal when it's infected. It causes them to act strangely during winter months, explains; rather than hibernating, they will fly outside during the day or cluster near the entrance of caves and mines, where some animals have recently been found sick and dying.

The die-off could be costly for some of Minnesota's vital industries.

The danger in Minnesota

The fungus that causes white-nose syndrome has been identified at two different locations in the state: Soudan Underground Mine in northeast Minnesota, which has 10,000-15,000 bats; and Forestville/Mystery Cave State Park, in southeast Minnesota, which has about 2,300 bats, the Department of Natural Resources said. And while no bats in Minnesota have yet died from the disease, officials expect it's only a matter of time based on trends in other states where it's been found.

The state has four different types of hibernating bats (all of which are susceptible to white-nose syndrome), but one in particular has caught the attention of the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service for being especially vulnerable to the disease: the northern long-eared bat. A decision on whether to put the bat on the endangered species list is expected to come early next year from the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service.

But, as the Star Tribune reports, the effort to protect bats could butt up against the logging industry in Minnesota. If the northern long-eared bat is put on the endangered species list, killing one – even accidentally – would become illegal, the paper reports. As a result, logging in Minnesota could be suspended during warm months when bats aren't hibernating, with the economic losses of a halted service cascading downward to other industries, the Star Tribune explains.

Then there's the potential agricultural impact.

The Minnesota DNR says bats are a "critical" part of the state's ecosystem because they eat huge quantities of insects – such as mosquitoes – that spread disease and damage crops and forests. For example, during summer, a nursing female bat may consume up to its body weight in insects each night. The DNR says bats are the only major predator of night-flying insects.

Estimates have placed the value of bats to Minnesota agriculture at $1.4 billion each year. And if that sounds like a lot, according to Wired, bats provide $22.9 billion in pest control annually nationwide.

Little brown bats – the most common type of bat in Minnesota – are thought to be the most sensitive to the fungus, MPR reported. The tri-colored bat and big brown bat are the others susceptible to white-nose syndrome.

An Associated Press video details some of the concern:

White-nose syndrome

White-nose syndrome was first documented in New York in the winter of 2006-07, but spread rapidly across the eastern U.S. and Canada. The fungus that causes white nose syndrome has been detected as far south as Mississippi.

Bats in 25 different states and five Canadian provinces have so far died from the fungus, the National Wildlife Health Center says.

The DNR says it's working with local and federal agencies to monitor white-nose syndrome in Minnesota, and says people shouldn't enter caves or mines that have hibernating bats – the fungus can be carried on clothing and shoes, even after they are washed.

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