NASHVILLE, Tenn. (WKRN) - A fatal disease is plaguing Tennessee's bats, which in turn is putting agriculture at risk.
White Nose Syndrome is a growing concern for Tennessee's wildlife officials.
Finding ways to control the fungus is a top priority, as agriculture plays a vital role in Tennessee's economy.
When accounting for multiplier effects, the agri-forestry industrial complex added $81.8 billion to Tennessee's economy in 2015.
"Bats provide the ecosystem services. They save the agriculture industry literally billions of dollars each year," Josh Campbell with the Tennessee Wildlife Resources Agency told News 2.
While not everyone loves bats, the flying mammals consume tons of insects which control pest for crop production.
Wildlife officials said they are dying at the hands of White Nose Syndrome, a cold-loving fungus found in caves.
"In response they wake up aroused to try and fight off the fungus and it causes them to wake up more frequently than they typically would in the winter, leave the caves in search of food and so they end up being exposed to cold temperatures which they can die from or starve to death from the repeated arousals," Campbell explained.
He said the fungus was discovered in 2006 in New York and has since spread significantly.
"It's spread down the Appalachians through Tennessee and across the U.S., it's actually made it's way all the way to the state of Washington."
Now it's spread across 32 states Campbell said, killing more than 6 million bats.
"It is a major concern because we have three species that are listed as endangered or threatened here in the state."
He said the disease is difficult to prevent and scientists across the country and North America are working to develop treatments for both caves and bats.
"It's very problematic because you are dealing with a wild animal that moves around throughout the winter time throughout the year," he explained.
White Nose Syndrome has led to a number of cave closures to the public. While wildlife officials said it doesn't harm humans, we can transmit it.
Some commercial caves now require people to walk through a water bath or some type of carpet that is treated to help remove as much of the soil from the cave.
Campbell said they are trying to increase the amount of summer habitat that's available for bats. The community can help in their efforts by installing bat boxes in their backyard.
The Southeastern Bat Diversity Network's annual Bat Blitz will be hosted in Sewanee at the end of July. During the three-day blitz, around 65 biologists from across the country will be conducting bat studies.