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Wildlife officials asking Oklahomans to help protect bats from deadly disease

SYDNEY, AUSTRALIA - MARCH 20: A Grey-Headed Flying Fox flies past a rising full-moon at the Royal Botanic Gardens March 20, 2008 in Sydney, Australia. Flying Foxes, or fruit bats, have taken up permanent roosts in the Botanic Gardens, causing major damage to heritage trees in the park. The Royal Botanic Gardens has begun a program to deter the flying foxes from roosting, as there are now some 11,000 bats roosting in the park. Deterents include noise to disturb sleep patterns, plastic bags attached to branches of trees, strobe lights, odours, and the playing of taped distress calls. (Photo by Ian Waldie/Getty Images)

DELAWARE COUNTY, Okla. – Wildlife officials are warning Oklahomans to take precautions and protect bats from a deadly disease.

Earlier this year, scientists with the U.S. Geological Survey confirmed that a tricolored bat in Delaware County tested positive for white-nose syndrome.

White-nose syndrome was first detected in New York in the winter of 2006. Since then, the disease has spread west and resulted in the deaths of millions of bats.

“It’s troubling that white-nose syndrome continues to push west and threatens the Ozark Plateau, a stronghold for bat conservation,” said National White-nose Syndrome Coordinator Jeremy Coleman of the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service. “We are focused on finding solutions and helping bats survive. We’re committed to working with Oklahoma and other partners across the country to closely monitor bats and fight this devastating disease.”

Experts say white-nose syndrome is caused by a fungus, which grows on hibernating bats’ muzzles and wings. The fungus irritates them, causing them to wake at a time when insects are scarce. Since the bats cannot eat and are using stored energy, they often can’t survive the winter.

Bats can eat up to 3,000 insects, including mosquitoes and other pests, in a single night.

“Both bats and their cave environments are incredibly sensitive,” Melynda Hickman, wildlife diversity biologist for the Oklahoma Wildlife Department. “We do know people can unknowingly spread the fungus if they do not follow proper decontamination procedures. A great way to help prevent the spread of the fungus is to avoid entering caves unnecessarily.”

Officials say more than 90 percent of the state’s caves are owned privately, so it is up to the landowner to help prevent the Pseudogymnoascus destructans fungus.

Wildlife biologists recommend limiting access to public and private caves, and visitors must follow the decontamination procedures.

Since the fungus was first detected in Delaware County, experts say it has already spread to Cherokee, Adair, Ottawa and Sequoyah counties.

So far, only limestone caves in Oklahoma have tested positive for the fungus. However, gypsum cave systems in Texas have been affected.