MINNEAPOLIS (WCCO) — A small-winged mammal not highly thought of by most people is under attack, as a deadly disease has already killed millions of them across the country.

It’s called White Nose Syndrome, and it devastates bat colonies. Two bats in Grant County, Wis., tested positive for the disease last month. And last year, Minnesota officials found evidence of the same disease in two state parks.

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If you visit Spring Valley, Wis., in April, you’ll still see a remnant of winter 70 feet below the surface: clusters of bats hibernating all over Crystal Cave.

“We love our bats around here, and we’re very proud of them,” said Eric McMaster, the owner of Crystal Cave.

He is especially proud that, so far, his 700 bats don’t have White Nose Syndrome. Still, the news that it’s in Wisconsin is nothing to celebrate.

“I think it’s devastating news, because bats are very important to the environment,” McMaster said. “But it’s not unexpected news.”

Since the disease was first discovered eight years ago out east, it has continued to spread west, waking bats from hibernation and causing them to burn stored fat so they can’t survive the spring.

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Last year, two surface samples from Minnesota state parks tested positive for the disease. One was in Soudan Underground Mine State Park, and the other was at Mystery Cave State Park. However, Minnesota wildlife officials haven’t yet found an actual animal with the disease.

Why should you care?

Experts say you should think of bats as basic pest control. A bat can eat up to 600 mosquitoes in an hour.

“Bats mean that farmers can use, or have to use, less pesticides,” McMaster said. “So without bats, there may be more pesticide usage.”

White Nose Syndrome is only spread from bat to bat, and it doesn’t hurt people. But caves across the country now ask visitors not to bring in clothes or cameras that may have been in a contaminated site before. At Crystal Cave, they provide decontamination spray to take care of it.

A spokesperson with the Minnesota DNR’s White Nose program said it’s likely just a matter of time until tests results for the disease are positive in Minnesota bats. Once the disease is detected, it’s usually in the second or third following winter that the disease is capable of wiping out entire colonies.

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Wisconsin is currently looking for volunteers to help with its bat monitoring program. Click here for more on that.

Liz Collin