Updated: Federal Government Urged To Close Caves Inhabited by Bats on Public Lands to Stop Spread of White-Nose Syndrome

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.

Comments

I would add that Pinnacles National Monument has 14 known species of bats, including some that occupy their two talus caves.

http://www.nps.gov/pinn/naturescience/bats.htm

Wow, I feel stupid. My wife and I go to the Smokies all the time and I did not know there were any caves inside the Park. I know of a few around it. Maybe that is what is being referred to?

Great Smoky has been subjected to karst processes (solution weathering), but offers relatively poor opportunities for caving. There are several publicly accessible caves in the park. Rainbow Falls Cave, near Cades Cove, can be entered via several small holes at the base of Rainbow Falls. The Whiteoak Sink area, a geologic basin, has entrances to four caves. It's notoriously wet and cold. The entrance to Blowhole Cave is blocked by an iron gate to protect hibernating Indiana bats (Myotis sodalis), an endangered species.

It's a damned shame. Twilight bat-spotting is a wonderful family adventure in our parks. But, we gotta do what we gotta do.

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My travels through the National Park System: americaincontext.com

While your statement "National parks that contain caves include..." is absolutely correct, many more NPS units have caves: Russell Cave NM, Chickamauga & Chattanooga NHP, Cumberland Gap NHP just to name 3 in the Cumberland Piedmont I&M network. Many NPS units with caves do not have developed public access to the caves; some don't have visitor use policies for public access to their caves, so access by serious spelunkers is handled on an ad hoc basis.

The spread of White Nose Syndrome appears to be primarily from bat to bat. Also, many of the bats mentioned by the Center ofr Biological Diversity roost in attics as well as mines and caves. This effort to protect the bats, while well meaning, will have no effect on the spread of the disease.

There are numerous caves (that house bats) under the jurisdiction of the NPS, BLM, Forest Service, Fish and Wildlife, etc. Heck - it wouldn't surprise me if active military bases had caves with bats, and some of them were actively used. The Center for Biological Diversity press release actually mentions the Agriculture and Defense departments.

If these caves were to be closed without more public comment and perhaps legislation, I can imagine all the interest groups that would take this to the courts. Several caves are the backbone of tourism in certain areas. Several companies have contracts to operate cave tours on federal land (Boyden Cavern in Sequoia NF is one) and they would want to protect their financial interests. Spelunkers would sue to keep access to their favorite caves. This request sounds more like a means to draw attention to the plight of the bats rather than a serious request. I don't see it going anywhere.

ypw, I must tell you that there has already been a ton of public comment. In March of last year, Fish and Wildlife recommended cessation of activity in affected caves. Their most recent update is at this link: http://www.fws.gov/northeast/white_nose.html As recently as December the U.S. Geological Survey put out its bulletin on recent findings with regard to WNS. They are collaborating with the Defense Department, U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, the U.S. Forest Service, the National Speleological Society, and Symbiology, LLC: http://www.fws.gov/northeast/whitenose/PDF/WHB2009-03WNSFinal.pdf

The National Speleological Society has given a lot of their expertise to research of this disease, supported by grants from FWS. A list of research grants can be accessed here: http://www.caves.org/WNS/RRF%20Grants%20Fall%202009.pdf The Pennsylvania Game Commission, the New York Dept. of Environmental Conservation, and similar departments in other states have monitoring programs as well. Kurt didn't mention who the conservation group was, my guess is Bat Conservation International? The caving community is very supportive, and for the most part have voluntarily followed the FWS recommendations. For example, the D.C. Grotto of the NSS has posted an information page about WNS here: http://www.caves.org/grotto/dcg/white-nose.html. I can assure you all this effort is going somewhere.

Some WNS-affected hibernacula have lost up to 90% of their populations! Bats are a keystone species, and are the primary predators of crop pests. Losses of up to 90% would be devastating to the agricultural industry. May I remind you of a similar calamity - the bee colony collapse continues to have a serious effect on crops that need pollination. Yes, it is a means to draw attention to the plight of bats, and considering how grim this situation is, I am very glad these groups are taking it seriously.

There is at this time no evidence that humans are transporting the disease, if it is indeed a disease. Koch's Postulates have not been satisfied for the fungus to be the primary cause of death. It may turn out to be an unknown environmental factor that is weakening the bats allowing the fungus to grow. Since bats have been found with the same fungus for over 20 years in Germany, and recently in France with seemingly no ill effects this sounds reasonable.
CBD is primarily a way to employ attorneys. Perhaps we should sue the USFWS to find a dark, damp hole in the ground in which to seal up all lawyers.

I did read about assorted cave closings in other articles on this subject. I was just thinking that one organization issuing a request isn't likely to force a blanket closing of caves across all federal lands. There are some communities that are dependent on the tourism economy. The federal government would likely be prudent and take action on a piecemeal basis.

The fungus is spread from bat to bat. There is NO evidence that it is spread by people. Closing caves will do nothing but keep out the researchers who are trying to solve this problem. The Center for Biological Diversity is ignoring the recommendations of the true bat experts such as Bat Conservation International and many University Researchers. I really think they are playing up this horrible situation so that they can make more money from their donation mailing lists. All their on-staff lawyers make their payroll costs very high.

With the proper permits, researchers are not being denied access. You are correct in that there is as yet no definitive proof that this disease is carried around by humans. There is also no proof to refute it. Absence of evidence does not mean evidence of absence. Still, the Center for Biological Diversity can be very aggressive and shrill - they appear to be more of an advocacy group than working researchers in comparison to Bat Conservation Int'l.

If one looks at the spread of WNS it is clear that it is migrating down the Appalachian Mountains where it is both colder on average as well as part of known bat flight corridors. Bats can and do fly hundreds of miles from roost sites to hibernation sites. Thus it is quite reasonable to assume that bats are spreading whatever causes WNS among themselves without help from humans. Other posts already mention that the exact genetically identical fungus is in Europe with no ill effects to the bats living there despite similar average ground temperatures and bat species. While it is a good thing to find out what is killing the bats, knee jerk reactions by a group of activists armed with little more than passion and money is no way to help our beneficial bats. Some peoples lively-hood depends on grants to fund their activities. Unless the fundamental science has been completed to provide a clear path forward the money spent by these individuals only serves to take it away from people doing real beneficial science. Would you trust a "group of lawyers" to make critical decisions about an imperiled specie with little to no scientific facts available to them? Right now CBD is trying to create a huge database of species to "protect". Having these data gives them increased power. I am uncertain that they deserve such power considering the ill conceived "let's close all caves to everyone right now" idea they are trying to ram down our throats. Concerned citizens, scientists, and nature lovers should re-examine the goals and ideals of this organization before supporting them. If you do find they are not what they seem it may be wise to contact your representatives and declare your concerns!

Effective enforcement and strict compliance by peoples is a total improbability regardless if all caves are mandated closed this will not work. Compassion for saving the bats is a human trait not shared by Mother Nature and despite of any valiant efforts on our part Nature will take it's course.

This is rich! Bats don't infect other bats people do!
Whats next great logical path?
Perhaps all caves effected should be gassed to kill entire ecosystems and the bats in them and seal these caves for 5 or more years so no more bats will die from the condition!! Cool what a government funding gold mine!