Wildlife service announces $100,000 challenge to save nation’s bats

Funding to help combat deadly fungal disease

White-nose syndrome is caused by a fungus that causes bats to wake up more frequently, which often results in dehydration and starvation before spring arrives. Photo by von Linden/National Park Service

The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service has announced a $100,000 challenge to combat white-nose syndrome, a lethal fungus that has killed millions of bats in North America and pushed some native bat species to the brink of extinction. Funding will be awarded to individuals who identify innovative ways to permanently eradicate, weaken or disarm the disease, according to a press release from the agency.

“Bats play an important role in native ecosystems by pollinating plants, dispersing seeds and eating agricultural pests that destroy crops and harm the economy,” said David Bernhardt, secretary of the U.S. Department of the Interior. “Unfortunately, white-nose syndrome is destroying native bat populations at unprecedented rates. We need creative and innovative solutions to combat this deadly disease. I support the white-nose syndrome challenge and encourage the public to submit ideas. Together, we can save our nation’s bats while eradicating one of the most devastating wildlife diseases in North America.”

“The national response to white-nose syndrome has demonstrated we can be more innovative and impactful when we harness our collective expertise, knowledge and skills,” said Service Principal Deputy Director Margaret Everson. “The white-nose syndrome challenge is designed to tap into that collaborative energy to fight the fungus and help save America’s bats and the natural benefits they provide to people.”

White-nose syndrome is caused by a fungus that sometimes looks like white fuzz on bats’ muzzles and wings. The fungus thrives in cold, damp places and infects bats during hibernation. Impacted bats wake up more frequently, which often results in dehydration and starvation before spring arrives.

Biologists first observed the impacts of white-nose syndrome in 2007 in caves near Albany, N.Y. Since then, white-nose syndrome has been confirmed in 33 states and seven Canadian provinces. At some affected sites, 90 to 100 percent of bats have disappeared, most succumbing to the disease.

“White-nose syndrome is considered one of the deadliest wildlife diseases, having killed over six million North American bats since it was discovered. The degree to which WNS has spread, including to my home state of South Dakota, is concerning,” said Kelly Hepler, president of the Association of Fish and Wildlife Agencies and Secretary of the South Dakota Department of Game, Fish and Parks. “Fish and wildlife agencies and partner organizations are dedicated to finding ways to reduce the effects of WNS and improve the survival of bats.”

Bats eat insects and are critical pest controllers. In the United States alone, bats are estimated to save farmers at least $3.7 billion per year in pest control services. A bat can possibly eat its own body weight in insects each night. Due to the drastic reduction in native bat populations, millions of insects are feeding on trees and crops, which can impact forestry, agriculture and even human health.

There is no known cure for white-nose syndrome, but scientists worldwide are working together to study the disease and how it can be controlled. Much of this work has been conducted under the umbrella of the U.S. National Response to White-nose Syndrome, a broad, multi-agency effort led by the Service.

The Service will host a webinar Nov. 20 from 2 to 3 p.m. ET for the public to learn more about the challenge guidelines, judging criteria, timeline and more. The deadline for individuals or teams to enter the challenge is Dec.31, 2019, by 11:59 p.m. ET.

Winning ideas will be the focus of future collaborations with scientists, designers and engineers to bring solutions to life. Additional information regarding rules and eligibility is available at www.whitenosesyndrome.org and on www.challenge.gov.