By Bill Hudson, WCCO-TV

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MINNEAPOLIS (WCCO) — They don’t have a reputation as the cutest and cuddliest animals, but bats really do more help than harm. In fact, a new study found bats save the agriculture industry more than $3 billion a year — money that would otherwise be spent on pesticides.

Unfortunately, the tiny creatures are now being threatened by a disease that strikes during the winter.

Visitors at Crystal Cave in Spring Valley, Wis. got an close-up look at one of nature’s smallest and most misunderstood animals. The bats are just waking up from their 7-month hibernation and cave owners, Jeannie and Blaze Cunningham, want people to get to know them and appreciate the tiny critters a little more.

“I find most people who come to the cave have watched too many Dracula movies,” said Blaze Cunningham, “and they’ve heard all the bad things about bats. But when you really get down and study the bats or you look at them, one of the first things you say is, ‘oh they’re so small.'”

“We have about 330 right now,” said Jeannie Cunningham.

She has watched the population in her cave grow over the years. She started as a tour guide at Crystal Cave when she was in high school and grew fond of bats.

“These Eastern Pipestrelles, or Pips, now they tend to hibernate by themselves,” she said. “They’re solitary hibernators.”

She is worried about the bat’s future and a disease that threatens to wipe out an entire population, called White Nose Syndrome.

“What we’re finding is that in the winter time, when bats are hibernating, the ones that are out East have developed a fungus growing on their body,” she explained.

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The fuzzy fungus causes the bats to wake up and burn stored fat when they should be hibernating.

“Because there are no bugs present and because the water is still frozen, they will usually die,” she said.

White Nose Syndrome has already wiped out entire colonies of bats out East in just a single winter. It’s because caves are damp and cool, the perfect environment for the fungus to flourish.

So far, there’s been no sign of the fatal fungus at Crystal Cave or at any other underground sites in Wisconsin or Minnesota. There’s no threat to human health, but there is some concern that humans could possibly infect the bats by bringing the fungus into the caves.

“Bat-to-bat transmission is the main way that the disease is spread,” said Jeannie Cunningham, “To be on the safe side here at Crystal Cave, we do ask that people who have been in a cave or a mine elsewhere in the last five to six years … refrain from bringing anything in that they had in that mine or cave.”

The greatest concern is that the death of bats could hit agriculture the hardest because even though a bat’s body is no bigger than an adult’s thumb, they eat thousands of insects each night.

Jeannie Cunningham said, “Which is a lot of mosquitoes, gnats, moths, corn-bore moths, that sort of thing.”

She said we all should care a little more about the misunderstood creatures of the night because of all the ways they help our environment.

“It’s just a benign, gentle, little creature that wants to do nothing more than eat bugs and sleep all winter,” said Jeannie Cunningham. “It would be a tragedy really to have people come and not be able to see the bats.”

Caves and mines all around the country are taking the same precautions that they have at Crystal Cave.

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Joan Gilbertson, Producer
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