El Malpais National Monument Closes Caves to Humans Over White-Nose Syndrome Concerns

All caves at El Malpais National Monument, including Four Windows (top) and Braided caves, have been closed to the public to prevent the spread of white-nose syndrome. NPS photos.

All caves at El Malpais National Monument in New Mexico have been closed to humans due to concerns over white-nose syndrome, a deadly disease that is sweeping through bat colonies in the eastern United States.

While nearly all of the caves in the park have been closed for some time, Superintendent Kayci Cook Collins says the five caves - Junction, Xenolith, Big Skylight, Four Windows and Braided – that have remained opened are now closed to the public.

“Federal and state agencies in New Mexico are very concerned about the spread of the fungus, Geomyces destructans, which causes white-nose syndrome in bats,” said the superintendent in a prepared release. “The disease has already killed more than 1 million bats in the northeastern United States and has spread from New York State all the way to northwest Oklahoma in four years.”

Officials aren't entirely sure what causes the fungal disease or how to manage it. Nor do they know whether the disease originated in the United States or came over from Europe, where a similar fungus exists on bats, or whether there are pockets of naturally immune bat populations.

“Researchers believe bat-to-bat contact is one of the ways the disease moves from cave to cave, however the disease may also be spread from cave to cave by humans on their caving gear,” the El Malpais superintendent said.

The recent discovery of the disease in Oklahoma could easily threaten bat populations at El Malpais, she said.

“The (bat) species that tested positive in Oklahoma, the Cave myotis, is the first uniquely western species to contract the Geomyces fungus,” Superintendent Collins said. “And, more importantly, the Cave myotis is found at El Malpais.”

Research is under way to see if the fungus might already be present in monument caves.

“We have no evidence that the fungus is present in our caves, however we have been doing research over the summer and are currently testing cave soil samples to see if the Geomyces strain is here,” she said. “There are several other bat and cave research projects we hope to get under way later this year and next spring that will add to the information we are currently collecting.”

While testing for the fungus and monitoring cave environments is the prime focus of the ongoing and future research efforts, Superintendent Collins said the monument is also seeing which caves do not have bat colonies.

“Caves that have maternal colonies, are bat hibernating sites or have agency species of concern must be closed,” she said. “Once we have more solid information from our researchers, we will look at recreational caving options.”

Comments

This is a terrible policy based on a lack of understanding of science and the important recreational, educational, historical, archaeological, and paleontological resources of caves. Caves are far more than bat habitat, and they are too important to leave policy to bat biologists who do not understand the wide suite of resources in the underground environment.

Bats transmit WNS. The supposed human vector has NEVER been demonstrated in any peer reviewed scientific publication, and in fact recent research on modeling the spread of WNS explains the course of the disease quite well without an human transmission mode.

This is a policy based on fear and panic, pure and simple. This is public land, and ALL the caves on the property should be presumptively open for responsible visitation and important cave research. As an historian specializing in cave history, and as an editor of the most important scientific journal in North America focusing on cave research, I must loudly protest this "blame the cavers and cave researchers" policy.

I know Fish and wildlife Service is running scared but sound public policy should be based on science, not fear. Open the caves. Or, if you think humans are transmitting the geomy. spores then you must close the ENTIRE park, because the spores persist on the surface. Can you image the NPS trying to closes all forest, or lakes, or mountains across the entire U.S.? Of course not. Ludicrous. But because they are scared, mistakenly think caves are closed systems, and believe without thinking the propaganda of USFWS, they think it is somehow ok to close all caves.

BTW, the supposed oklahoma cse has recently been thrown into question as lab tests did NOT positively identify the Geomy. fungus, and the national map of the spread of WNS has been revised to reflect this fact.

Joseph Douglas, Ph. D.
Researcher
University of Tennessee Cave Archaeology Research Team

Parks close caves so that the Government can be seen as doing something. It probably doesn't do much good, although logically bats stressed by human disturbance would be more susceptible to WNS. It's more about the political nature of all land management agencies. In a crisis they need to be seen as taking action. That's all these cave closures are, window dressing.

To date, the human vector has still not been proven!
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