A devastating disease that's been spreading for a number of years now appears to really be taking a vicious toll on bats in Montana.

Montana Fish, Wildlife and Parks recently released survey numbers from a critical bat habitat area in the state. The numbers are astounding.

Azure Cave is located in northeast Montana's Phillips County, in the Little Rocky Mountains. An annual survey conducted last month by Montana FWP and Bureau of Land Management, indicates that a normally thriving population of hibernating bats has been devastated.

A typical annual survey? FWP says that is 1,700 to 1,900 bats. This year? About 40. No, that is not a typo. While there was also a noticeable decrease in population in the 2021 survey, it is nothing compared to what this year's revealed.

So what is contributing to this stunning 98% decline in survey numbers?

WNS, White-Nose Disease, is a fungus that grows on bats, often on the face. Because of that skin irritation, the bats' hibernation cycle is disrupted and they get dehydrated. With less sleep for a body that is trying to shut down for a number of months, fat storage dwindles. Surviving the chill of a Montana winter becomes next to impossible.

There is some amazing data on how much bats contribute to controlling mosquitos.  According to Kristina Smucker, a Montana FWP bureau chief, "A little brown bat can eat 1,200 mosquitoes in an hour. Bats are really important for keeping insect populations in check – they help protect crops and timber from insect pests.”

And now WNS, which has been found in 38 states, claiming the lives of some 6 million bats, appears to be tearing at the heart of perhaps Montana's most vital bat sanctuary. Excluding New Mexico, FWP says that Azure Cave had contained the largest known hibernating winter colony for several bat species in the western U.S.

Many other common locations for bats are being monitored around the state. While some people would put them in a Snakes and Spiders Creepy-Crawly category, FWP would like to ask for your help should you encounter one or more dead bats. You can call the FWP Wildlife Health Lab in Bozeman at 406-577-7882, or contact a biologist at your local FWP office.

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