2011-04-21 / Features

Feds Might Close Caves To Protect Bats From Fungus

MISSOULA, Mont. (AP) – Officials with the Northern Region of the U.S. Forest Service are considering closing caves under the agency’s jurisdiction starting May 1 because of a disease that has killed millions of bats, mainly in the Northeast.

But cavers say the move is unwarranted in the Rocky Mountains where bat populations aren’t showing signs of white-nose syndrome. The closure would include Montana and northern Idaho.

“If we were to lose our bat populations to the extent we’re losing them out east, it would be devastating,’’ Forest Service spokesman Brandan Schulze told the Missoulian. “White-nose syndrome is a big concern, especially as we move into spring. The snow melts and more access to caves opens up.’’

The disease causes a white fungus to grow on a bat’s muzzle and skin. It doesn’t let bats hibernate, which can fatally weaken them. Officials fear humans might be spreading the disease.

But cavers say the agency should first take public comments before closing caves.

“It appears they’re doing this under an emergency plan that allows them not to take public comments,’’ said Mike McEachern, president of the Northern Rocky Mountain Grotto cavers’ association. “That’s not the correct way to proceed. It was justifiable in the East when the outbreaks were occurring, but out here they’ve now had six years to learn about this.’’

McEachern argued that bat populations in the region are less susceptible to disease outbreaks because they live in smaller concentrations. He also said cavers have embraced decontamination methods to avoid possibly spreading the disease.

The Northern Region of the U.S. Forest Service has 16 bat species, 12 of which hibernate. Six of the species are on the agency’s sensitive species watch list.

“When the problem first emerged, it was kind of consolidated in the New York area,’’ Schulze said. “It was a small spread. Then it wasn’t until just last year it started jumping huge distances, across the Appalachian Mountain range and over to Missouri and Oklahoma. If it’s just being transmitted bat to bat, how is it reaching across these big distances? Is it possible that people could be transmitting it?’’

The definition the Forest Service uses for a cave includes most sheltered overhangs.

Several gatherings are planned this spring and summer where researchers are likely to shed more light on white-nose syndrome.

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