COLUMBIA, S.C. (AP) -- A disease that has killed millions of bats in the eastern U.S. is now in South Carolina, leading some scientists to say more needs to be done to stop the fungus that is spreading the illness.
The South Carolina Department of Natural Resources said Monday that it found a bat that died from white-nose syndrome in February in a remote part of Table Rock State Park.
The bat was the first found in the state with the fungus that causes the disease, which turns the muzzles and other parts of the sickened bats white. The disease is not harmful to humans.
It was first found in bats six years ago in New York, and South Carolina is the 20th state to record a case. Scientists estimate up to 7 million bats have died, and the disease kills more than 90 percent of the bats it infects.
"By now, anyone who still thinks white-nose syndrome is going to slow down as it spreads across the country needs to drop that delusion," said Mollie Matteson, a bat specialist at the Center for Biological Diversity.
Bats eat insects, which means the disease could force farmers and others to use more pesticides. The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service estimates that bats eat enough bugs to save at least $3 billion a year that would be spent on insect-killing chemicals.
The fungus that causes white-nose syndrome grows best in damp, cool spaces, which are where a number of species of bats hibernate during the winter. Bats that get the disease start flying around during the day in winter and show other uncharacteristic behaviors. There are some bat species, like the free-tailed bat and the evening bat, that haven't been sickened.
Humans can spread the fungus from cave to cave on clothing. Federal officials are telling spelunkers, researchers and others who go into caves to take special steps to decontaminate their clothes because normal clothes washing doesn't destroy the fungus.
But the Center for Biological Diversity, which is a nonprofit conservation organization that tries to protect endangered animals and plants, wants to close public caves to everyone expect scientists and have the government recommend that private landowners close their caves as well.
"Without dramatic action by federal and state agencies to slow the spread and find a cure, bat populations are going to wink out across the continent," Matteson said. "These unique animals, and the irreplaceable insect-control services they freely provide to us, will be lost forever."