Mike Groll, AP
In this Jan. 27, 2009, file photo, a radio transmitter is inserted into a little brown bat in an abandoned mine in Rosendale, N.Y. Scientists have taken a key step toward fighting a disease that is killing the nation's bats, finding several drugs that show promise for treatment and antiseptics that may help decontaminate areas where bats live or the people who visit them.

SALT LAKE CITY — Maligned and misunderstood, bats get a bad rap as creepy and mysterious creatures that haunt the night.

"There are a lot of misperceptions by people that bats are dirty and gross and will get into your hair. They're actually cool and fun to watch," said Ann Froschauer of the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service.

Froschauer said the reality is that bats are highly efficient insect feeders, performing a service that is priceless to agricultural and Forest Service industries dependent on them to help control pests that can decimate crops and other vegetation.

The other reality is that they are dying by the millions, falling to a fungus that is causing a disease called white-nose syndrome.

White-nose syndrome has devastated bat populations across eastern North America. First documented in New York in the winter of 2006-2007, the disease has taken hold in 19 states and four Canadian provinces. Service biologists and partners estimate that the syndrome has killed more than 5.5 million bats.

For the first time this year, an infected bat was found as far west as Missouri and the fungus was detected as far south as western Oklahoma.

The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service is worried the disease could march even farther west, so it is arming states with grants to help track bat populations, learn more about their habitat and what can be done in advance of the syndrome arriving.

Utah received $24,000 to jump-start work in this arena, and is one of 30 states sharing in nearly $1 million awarded by the agency on Monday.

State natural resource agencies will use the funds for surveillance and monitoring of caves and mines where bats hibernate, preparing state response plans and other related projects, Froschauer said.

"Folks working on this response are pretty much bracing themselves," she said.

Froschauer said the service is leading the national response plan made up more than 100 agencies trying get a handle on the onset of the fungus and the subsequent infection of bats.

"We're in a little bit of a race against time," she said, adding that the agency lacks any way of determining if, or when, it spreads farther west.

"There's no crystal ball for us to look into to say when it gets to Utah."

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