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The scope and severity of white-nose syndrome on hibernating bats in North America

April 20, 2021

Assessing the scope and severity of threats is necessary for evaluating impacts on populations to inform conservation planning. Quantitative threat assessment often requires monitoring programs that provide reliable data over relevant spatial and temporal scales, yet such programs can be difficult to justify until there is an apparent stressor. Leveraging efforts of wildlife management agencies to record winter counts of hibernating bats, we collated data for 5 species from over 200 sites across 27 U.S. states and 2 Canadian provinces from 1995 to 2018 to determine the impact of white-nose syndrome (WNS), a deadly disease of hibernating bats. We estimated declines of winter counts of bat colonies at sites where the invasive fungus that causes WNS (Pseudogymnoascus destructans) had been detected to assess the threat impact of WNS. Three species undergoing species status assessment by the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service (Myotis septentrionalis, Myotis lucifugus, and Perimyotis subflavus) declined by more than 90%, which warrants classifying the severity of the WNS threat as extreme based on criteria used by NatureServe. The scope of the WNS threat as defined by NatureServe criteria was large (36% of Myotis lucifugus range) to pervasive (79% of Myotis septentrionalis range) for these species. Declines for 2 other species (Myotis sodalis and Eptesicus fuscus) were less severe but still qualified as moderate to serious based on NatureServe criteria. Data-sharing across jurisdictions provided a comprehensive evaluation of scope and severity of the threat of WNS and indicated regional differences that can inform response efforts at international, national, and state or provincial jurisdictions. We assessed the threat impact of an emerging infectious disease by uniting monitoring efforts across jurisdictional boundaries and demonstrated the importance of coordinated monitoring programs, such as the North American Bat Monitoring Program (NABat), for data-driven conservation assessments and planning.