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Dying bats called No. 1 mammal crisis in U.S.

The lightning-fast die-off of bats is being called the No. 1 crisis affecting mammals in this country. Scientists from more than 100 state and federal agencies are coordinating their efforts to learn why bats are dying.

CBS News Correspondent Betty Nguyen noted on "The Early Show" that one of the consequences of the bats' deaths is more bugs.

Wildlife officials now are pointing to a fungus they say is killing bats in unprecedented numbers.

It's a desperate situation with no solution in sight.

Photos: U.S. bats in deep peril

Nguyen reported bats often get a bad rap as creepy, blood-sucking night creatures. But farmers, like James Roby, actually count on them to eat 100,000 tons of crop-damaging bugs every year.

Roby showed Nguyen a chard leaf, badly damaged by a caterpillar or worm.

He explained, "(The damage) would have been potentially controlled by a bat that would have nailed the moth that would have laid the eggs on this leaf to begin with."

That's not happening because bats are in danger. A fast-spreading fungus has wiped out a million of them in 18 East Coast states.

Roby said of the chard crop, "It's inedible right now; it's just not marketable."

An ailment dubbed White-Nose Syndrome leaves the fungus on a bat's nose, wings and body, and that eventually leads to starvation. The die-off is so great - and so fast - the U.S. Department of Fish and Wildlife has declared bats the No. 1 mammal in crisis in the U.S.

One type, the little brown bat, is headed for the endangered species list.

Scott Darling, of the Vermont Department of Fish & Wildlife, said, "What was our most common bat three years ago, now we need to learn an awful lot about it in a hurry so we can do all we can to save it."

A team from the U.S. and Vermont Fish and Wildlife services are in a race against time.

There is no cure for White-Nose Syndrome and there are no funds to find one. All researchers can do is try to figure out why it's happening. To do that, bats are caught and tagged with transmitters. By literally carrying the burden on their backs, Nguyen said, the hope is these tiny bats will help scientists figure out how to keep them alive.

But, for farmers, it might be a little too late.

Nguyen asked Roby, "How much time do you have?"

He replied, "(We have) very little time. Less than a year."

"And then what happens?" Nguyen asked.

"It spreads out West and we lose millions and millions of bats," he said.

Bats contribute an estimated $23 billion annually to the agricultural industry through insect control and pollination. That's money farmers might have to spend on pesticides.

Roby said, "It could be apocalyptic, because we're talking about a check that's been in place for years that takes care of hundreds of tons of insects out of the ecosystem. And that problem is going to be very similar to the clouds of locusts. Not only is it going to affect our crops, but it's going to affect our people."

And that's exactly what scientists are desperately trying to prevent.

Nguyen added on "The Early Show" that scientists do know the fungus thrives in the caves where certain species of bats hibernate during the winter.

The fungus first showed up five years ago up in a cave near Albany, N.Y. The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service thinks hikers unknowingly got fungus on their gear, then started spreading it, beginning to kill the bat population.

She said the only thing researchers from the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service can do now is close off certain caves and mines where the bats go in to hibernate, so researchers can get in there and figure out how to keep the syndrome from spreading.

Nguyen said, "Mainly, they need prevention at this point, because time is of the essence."

"Early Show" co-anchor Erica Hill added closing off these bat areas potentially prevents hikers from going in, bringing out the fungus and spreading it to other caves.

Co-anchor Chris Wragge remarked, "You lose sight of how important bats are. ... Almost kind of like the honey bee."

Wragge was referring to widespread issue of Colony Collapse Disorder that has affected hives across the U.S. in recent years.

Nguyen added, "Which can mean more pesticides if they can't stop these bats from dying, because the insects will continue to eat the crops, which means that more pesticides are going to raise the price of what you're buying in the grocery store. So again, (there's) that trickle-down effect."

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