03/15/2012 07:23 pm ET Updated May 16, 2012

White Nose Syndrome In Bats Has Spread To Alabama

BIRMINGHAM, Ala., March 15 (Reuters) - White-nose syndrome, a mysterious illness blamed for killing millions of bats across eastern North America since it was detected in New York in 2006, has spread to Alabama, authorities said on Thursday.

Government wildlife officials said the disease, which poses a potentially devastating threat to U.S. agriculture because bats feed on pest insects, had been confirmed earlier this month among bats nesting in the Russell Cave complex in Alabama's Jackson County.

With the outbreak in Alabama, white-nose syndrome has now been confirmed in 17 U.S. states, according to Ann Froschauer of the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service. It has also been detected in four Canadian provinces.

In addition to being the southernmost state where white-nose has been detected, Alabama is home to the largest hibernating population of the endangered Gray Bat, Froschauer said.

"I'm sure the folks in Alabama and elsewhere are pretty concerned about this," she said. "It (the Gray Bat) is one of our federally listed endangered species."

The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service estimates that up to 6.7 million bats have died from white-nose since it was discovered in the U.S. northeast.

The disease, linked to a fungus that spreads among bats as they hibernate, is of particular concern because the flying, nocturnal mammals provide natural pest control through their eating habits.

"Insectivorous bats likely save the U.S. agricultural industry at least $3 billion each year, or approximately $74 per acre for the average farmer," the Alabama Department of Conservation and Natural Resources said in a press release. (Reporting By Verna Gates; Editing by Tom Brown and Cynthia Johnston)