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Energy and Environment
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Study: The disease killing millions of bats costs U.S. ag hundreds of millions of dollars a year

A group of bats hanging upside down inside a cave. The bats have a white fungal growth on each of their noses.
Photo courtesy of Nancy Heaslip/New York State Department of Environmental Conservation
Little brown bats with white-nose syndrome — a white fungal growth on the nose.

Bats play a big role in agriculture. They fertilize, pollinate and eat crop-loving insects. As the deadly white-nose syndrome kills millions of bats across the U.S., the loss is felt across the industry – and it comes with a price tag.

A recent paper out of Colorado State University suggests the loss of bats due to the highly contagious fungal disease costs U.S. agriculture up to $495 million a year, based on 2017 estimates.

“Lost bat populations have harmful ripple effects on food and agriculture,” Amy Ando, an environmental economist at the University of Illinois Urbana-Champaign who co-authored the report, said in a news release. “Crop yields fall, and input costs rise as farmers try to compensate for the services bats usually provide. That drives down the value of farmland and the number of acres planted, and the supply shock probably also hurts consumers as ag production becomes more costly.”

According to White-Nose Syndrome Response Team, the disease has been confirmed in 38 states, including, in the Mountain West, Montana, New Mexico, and Wyoming.

A map of white-nose syndrome occurrences across North America. The map illustrates that early occurrences in 2006-2007 were found along the East Coast. Many recent occurrences in 2021-2022 have appeared in the Mountain West and parts of Canada.
Spread of white-nose syndrome across North America, as of 2022.

“What it means for farmers is that they’ve lost a free pesticide service,” said CSU's Dale Manning, an agricultural economist and the report's lead author.

Manning says producers can buy more pesticides, but that increases costs. With more insects free to roam, crop yields suffer. And all of this results in lower profitability of agriculture.

Possible solutions like bat vaccines and fungicides for caves aren’t cheap, but Manning says the costs to agriculture are greater.

“From an agricultural perspective, controlling the spread is an economic win," he said. "The benefits exceed the costs of controlling the spread.”

In March, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service cited white-nose syndrome in proposing to list the northern long-eared bat as endangered under the Endangered Species Act. That's one of 12 species known to be affected by the disease. The agency says white-nose syndrome is expected to reach the northern long-eared bat’s entire U.S. range – which includes Montana and Wyoming – by 2025. So far it's all but wiped out the populations already hit by the disease.

This story was produced by the Mountain West News Bureau, a collaboration between Wyoming Public Media, Nevada Public Radio, Boise State Public Radio in Idaho, KUNR in Nevada, the O'Connor Center for the Rocky Mountain West in Montana, KUNC in Colorado, KUNM in New Mexico, with support from affiliate stations across the region. Funding for the Mountain West News Bureau is provided in part by the Corporation for Public Broadcasting.
Copyright 2022 KUNM. To see more, visit KUNM.

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