- Associated Press - Monday, June 15, 2015

COLUMBUS, Ohio (AP) - A fungal disease is responsible for decimating Ohio’s bat population in recent years, and wildlife officials say hikers are partly to blame.

White-nose syndrome first appeared in 2011 and is now confirmed in 19 counties, The Columbus Dispatch reported (https://bit.ly/1TnTGhp).

One infected bat can carry the deadly disease back to its den and infect an entire colony. The fungus produces billions of spores that live in the soil and walls of caves or other habitats.

Ohio Division of Wildlife bat biologist Jennifer Norris said white-nose syndrome is so widespread because humans transmit spores from site to site. Hikers and nature enthusiasts exploring caves or abandoned mines often unknowingly pick up white-nose syndrome spores on their clothing and spread the disease.

Ohio is home to 11 species of bats, which are active from early spring through fall. In the winter, with no insect food supply, some bats migrate to warmer regions while others hibernate in mass colonies.

Norris said bats can contract white-nose syndrome any time of the year, but winter is its deadliest time.

Large numbers of bats gather in close proximity during the colder months, making them more susceptible to the disease.

Norris said losing millions of bats, and the valuable insect control they provide, could have huge consequences for forests and agriculture.

The U.S. Forest Service extended an order last week prohibiting anyone from entering underground mines or tunnels in Wayne National Forest in an effort to minimize risks to the state’s bat population. Violators can be punished by fines up to $5,000 and six months in prison.

Forest spokesman Gary Chancey said no citations have been issued since the order went into effect in May 2010.

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Information from: The Columbus Dispatch, https://www.dispatch.com

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