A conservation group is petitioning the federal government with a request that it close all caves and mines on public lands that are inhabited by bats in a bid to stop the spread of white-nosed syndrome among bats. At the same time, the Center for Biological Diversity wants the Eastern small-footed bat and the Northern long-eared bat to be listed as endangered species.
National parks that contain caves include Mammoth Cave National Park, Great Smoky Mountains National Park, Sequoia National Park, Carlsbad Caverns National Park, Wind Cave National Park, Oregon Caves National Monument, Jewell Cave National Monument, Timpanogos Cave National Monument, Big South Fork National River and Recreation Area, and Buffalo National River.
According to officials at Mammoth Cave, "Although this disease does not bother humans it has been associated with the deaths of more than 1 million bats in just three years. The cause of WNS (white-nose syndrome) remains elusive, but the syndrome has been linked to a fungus that forms a white covering on bats' muzzles as well as other body parts such as the wings, causing intense irritation. The fungus seems to prefer cold temperatures and so strikes bats when they are most vulnerable—during hibernation. The irritation causes affected bats to wake and use up energy reserves long before spring comes. They then starve or freeze, and die.
"First identified in a cave in New York state in 2006, WNS has spread southward and westward and has now been positively tracked to the mountains of western Virginia. While the contagion has not yet been found at Mammoth Cave, scientists warn that its appearance may only be a matter of time."
At the Center for Biological Diversity, officials say cave closures are needed if the disease is to be contained.
“White-nose syndrome has decimated bats in the Northeast and is quickly spreading to other regions,” said Mollie Matteson, a conservation advocate with the Center. “Our government needs to increase its response by an order of magnitude to offer any hope for bats in the eastern United States and to ensure that the disease does not spread across the country.”
According to a release from the Center, the disease "has spread to bat populations in a total of nine states. Biologists believe it will show up in new areas this winter, and may reach some of the densest and most diverse bat populations in the world, in the South and Midwest, within the next year or two."
“This is the worst wildlife catastrophe the country has seen since the extinction of the passenger pigeon,” said Ms. Matteson. “Bats eat millions of insects every year, meaning their loss could have far-reaching consequences for people and for crops.”
The Center wants the secretaries of the Interior, Agriculture, and Defense to close all bat-inhabited caves and mines on federal lands throughout the continental United States to prevent the possible human transmission of the fungus that causes white-nose syndrome and to ban travel between caves with bats under any jurisdiction. Scientists suspect that people are partially responsible for the fungus’ spread and may even have introduced it to North America, the Center's release said. A recent genetic analysis of a white fungus found on a bat in France confirmed that it is identical to the disease-causing fungus in the United States, it continued, adding that, European bats do not appear to become ill from the fungus.
“Closing access to caves is a necessary precaution until white-nose syndrome is better understood and it can be determined that entering caves is safe,” said Ms. Matteson.
While the Center realizes closing publicly accessible caves in national parks would be a hardship for tourism, they believe it's currently the best tool to try to slow the spread of the disease.
"This closure would apply to all national park lands where there are bat caves. We are concerned with the spread of the disease to all bat species, and we are particularly concerned about the spread of WNS to caves where federally-listed bats are found. Mammoth Cave National Park has two federally listed bats, Indiana bat and gray bat," said Ms. Matteson when contacted by the Traveler..
"WNS first showed up in Albany, New York, in a cave that receives thousands of visitors a year. Closure of landmark sites such as Mammoth would certainly be a significant and difficult action, and we are sympathetic to the distress it will cause some people," she continued. "On the other hand, the national parks were established to protect the valuable natural features found within them. Bats are an important part of the cave ecosystems in which they are found, and have many values in and of themselves. To protect features within the national parks, sometimes access must be restricted. In the case of White-Nose Syndrome, that means bat caves need to be protected, and closed to nonessential access, until such time as it is clear that it is safe for the bats for people to enter the caves again."
The Center says the two bat species it is petitioning to have listed as endangered "were already rare prior to the appearance of white-nose syndrome and are now at grave risk of extinction."
“Without aggressive efforts to secure their habitat and stem further losses from all causes, including human transmission of the new bat disease, these bats may soon join the sad list of American species we know only from textbooks and museums,” said Ms. Matteson.
At Mammoth Cave National Park, visitors are asked to obey the following rules:
* Do not wear any shoes that have been in a cave or mine outside of the four-county Mammoth Cave area (Barren, Hart, Warren or Edmonson Counties) within the last five years or be prepared to sanitize your shoes before going into the cave. This involves a short 5-10 minute process.
* Do not wear any clothing, or carry any objects into Mammoth Cave that you wore or carried with you in any cave or mine outside the four-county area in the last five years. Please leave any potentially contaminated objects at home or in your vehicle.
* You will not be allowed to go on the tour with clothing or items that have been in affected caves or mines. Your compliance is essential in this regard.
* If you have questions, please visit the White-Nose Station at the Visitor Center. A ranger there will be happy to assist you.
At Great Smoky Mountains, the park closed all caves to the public back in April 2009 with hopes of slowing the spread of the disease.