A highly-devastating bat disease called white-nose syndrome has been detected for the first time in a Northwest bat in Washington, posing a threat for the populations of flying mammals in the state and beyond.

According to the Center for Biological Diversity, the little brown bat was discovered on March 11 by hikers on a trail about 30 miles east of Seattle. It is infected by a pathogenic fungus that has already killed 6 million bats in North America.

CBD senior scientist Mollie Matteson said the event is a wake-up call for land-managers in the West to do everything they can to keep the bat disease from spiraling out of control -- before it is too late.

"It's shocking and disturbing to see this disease reach Washington and indeed the western United States," said Matteson.

Veterinarian Katherine Haman said the hikers found the bat alive, but it was very weak and unable to fly. The animal was taken to a PAWS shelter, where it died in the cage two days after.

The state's wildlife agency sent the bat to the U.S. Geological Survey's National Wildlife Health Center in Wisconsin, where scientists confirmed that the bat was indeed infected by white-nose syndrome.

The deadly disease has caused dramatic declines among populations of several bat species, including the Indiana bat, the northern long-eared bat, the tricolored bat, and the little brown bat.

Experts say it is the worst wildlife health crisis in recent years, resulting to 100 percent mortality rates among bats in affected caves.

Seven bat species have been known to be afflicted with white-nose syndrome. Unfortunately, there is no known cure.

The disease's first detection in Western U.S. represents a "game-changer," said wildlife biologist Jeremy Coleman. The closest state with a confirmed detection of the pathogenic fungus is 1,250 miles away in Nebraska.

Humans and other animals are not known to be susceptible to white-nose syndrome. Meanwhile, scientists have raised several questions: how many bats in the Northwest are infected? How long has the disease been in the state? How did it reach the state?

One possible explanation is that spelunkers and miners transported the fungus on gear or shoes, experts said.

"This disease just made a jump of more than 1,000 miles, so it's pretty reasonable to think this could be a human-caused transmission," said Matteson.

In 2010, the CBD filed a petition to close all caves and abandoned mines on federal lands as a precautionary measure. Such closures would decrease disturbance of hibernating bats.

Matteson said the news is heartbreaking because wildlife and land managers could have done more to stem the spread, such as prohibiting nonessential cave access into land caves.

"They could have passed rules requiring that no caving gear or clothing from WNS-positive states be allowed in caves in unaffected states," added Matteson.

Photo: U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service Headquarters | Flickr

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