Montana was one of 28 states to receive funding for bat research as the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service tries to stop the spread of deadly white-nose syndrome.

The fungus-based disease has killed huge populations of bats in 22 states and five Canadian provinces since it was detected in 2007. Federal estimates now put the toll at more than 5.7 million bats, mostly on the Eastern Seaboard and South.

“These grants provide essential support to our state partners in responding to this disease,” FWS national white-nose syndrome coordinator Jeremy Coleman said in an email. “The research, monitoring and actions made possible by these grants have yielded valuable results and insights for our national response to white-nose syndrome.”

The disease affects bats as they hibernate in caves during the winter. While its exact method of killing and spread are still unconfirmed, preliminary research shows it can be carried by humans who explore caves.

However, that has proved controversial in states like Montana, which have no recorded incidents of white-nose syndrome. While other states and federal land managers have ordered closures of public caves, Montana spelunkers argue a blanket regulation is unfounded.

In particular, Montana bats don’t appear to gather in the same kinds of winter colonies as other regions, and the climate here may not be conducive to the spread of the fungus.

Grant amounts ranged from $7,000 to $47,500. Montana’s Department of Fish, Wildlife and Parks received $31,096. The money will go to establishing baseline data on the state’s bat populations and vulnerability.

FWP Parks Director Chas Van Genderen said biologists are still working on how to address the issue at the popular Lewis and Clark Caverns State Park. Cave tours have not been changed or modified this season.

Reporter Rob Chaney can be reached at 523-5382 or at rchaney@missoulian.com.

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