Since its discovery in January 2007 the lethal fungal infection known as white-nose syndrome (WNS) has killed at many as 1.5 million bats in the U.S. Northeast. Now, as temperatures start to drop this autumn into the range where WNS operates at its optimal killing capacity, the U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service (FWS) has drafted a plan to respond to the problem.

The draft report, "A Plan for Assisting States, Federal Agencies, and Tribes in Managing White-Nose Syndrome in Bats" (download the PDF here), calls for a highly coordinated interagency effort to manage WNS and conserve the bat species it affects. The report isn't final, but it is an important step to take before winter, when the WNS-causing fungus will be at its strongest.

Among the plan's stated priorities: creating uniform data-collection standards and making the information easily accessible to all parties studying WNS; developing tests for rapid diagnosis; preventing the affliction's spread to new areas; and formulating best practices for the recovery of bat populations.

WNS is thought to be caused by a fungus of the genus Geomyces. The cold-loving organism grows on bats' facial skin and flight membranes, possibly causing them to starve. In caves where it has been observed, bats have suffered mortality rates ranging from 75 to 100 percent.

In Vermont, one of eight states were WNS has so far been observed, as many as 95 percent of the state's bats have already died. Bats have now totally disappeared from one mine in Stratford, which was "once considered the second-largest bat hibernacula in Vermont, and maybe New England," Vermont Fish & Wildlife Department biologist Scott Darling told the Rutland Herald.

Elsewhere, one of the worst-afflicted species is the endangered Indiana bat (Myotis sodalis), for which the FWS has seen a population drop of at least 30 percent in the last two years due to WNS.

The death of hundreds of thousands of bats has already had an effect on ecosystems. "That's about 700,000 tons of insects that weren't eaten this summer because those bats weren't there," Dave Redell, bat ecologist for the Wisconsin Department of Natural Resources, told the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel. This could lead to an increase in the spread of West Nile virus and other diseases, and require farmers to spend more money to protect their crops. WNS hasn't hit Wisconsin yet, but the state is preparing for it while their bats are still healthy.

In addition to the draft plan, the FWS is reviewing grant proposals to study the cause, control and treatment of WNS. The agency has received $5 million in proposals for just $800,000 in grants. Meanwhile, New Jersey, one of the states where the WNS outbreak is at its worst, has approved a separate $500,000 in funding to study WNS.

According to the FWS, "Additional agencies, states, organizations and academia will be involved in developing the plan, which will be peer-reviewed and available for public review this winter."

Image: Little brown bat at Greeley Mine, Vt., with white-nose syndrome, March 26, 2009. Marvin Moriarty/USFWS