Caves closed off to the public for three years are being reopened on national forest land, despite continuing fears of the spread of an epidemic facing bats.
The public is now allowed to enter caves in the White River National Forest, and throughout the Rocky Mountain region, the U.S. Forest Service announced Thursday.
An emergency closure was set in place in July 2010 denying access to caves in an effort to protect bat populations from a mysterious fungus that’s wiped out more than 5.5 million of the winged mammals since it was discovered in 2006.
White-nose syndrome is killing bats in record numbers in what’s been described as a wildlife health crisis. The syndrome has devastated entire populations of bats, and has spread throughout the northeastern United States and Canada.
The bats are infected with a fungus that thrives in cold, humid conditions while they hibernate, biologists report. The fungus does serious harm to their bodies while their immune systems are most vulnerable, growing on them and digesting their organs and tissue.
“It wears them down, eats away at their skin and dehydrates them,” said Rob Mies, executive director of the Organization for Bat Conservation.
Eighteen species of bats are known to reside in Colorado. However, white-nose syndrome has not been confirmed in the state or the U.S. Forest Service’s Rocky Mountain Region — but it has been detected as far west as Oklahoma.
White-nose syndrome is spread primarily through bat-to-bat interactions. However, researchers said the fungus that causes the syndrome can survive outside of caves and can become hitchhikers on clothing and equipment. The spores have the potential to be transferred to uncontaminated caves and then to bats, said Richard L. Truex, a regional wildlife ecologist with the Forest Service.
Spelunkers will be required to register before visiting caves in the Rocky Mountain Region, which includes Colorado, Wyoming, South Dakota and Kansas. Cavers will need to carry their registration form when visiting caves and decontaminate their clothing and gear before and after entry.
The new regulations are receiving mixed reviews from the caving and scientific communities.
“I think there are some cases where caves can be opened up for recreation, but I think it needs to be strictly monitored,” Mies said. “The majority of bat caves need to remain closed because of the potential to spread the fungus and because of the agitation caused by humans.”
Rick Adams, a professor in the school of biological sciences at the University of Northern Colorado in Greeley, calls the decision to allow public access to the caves an invitation for fungus to invade cave ecosystems and wipe out populations of bats in the region.
“It makes no sense to open caves now and invite the fungus in via transport on human clothing or gear,” he said in a written statement to the Summit Daily. “Why the Rocky Mountain Region USDA has chosen to value recreational opportunities over ecosystem health, especially considering the devastating and uncontrollable impacts of this pathogen once it enters a region, is a question only they could possibly answer.”
But Forest Service wildlife ecologist Truex said “blanket closures,” such as the restriction put in place in 2010, have the potential to misdirect conservation efforts.
He said by focusing on high-priority sites, the Forest Service can collaborate with the caving community to better understand and monitor bats and other cave resources.
“That’s why as a wildlife ecologist I am comfortable with this,” he said. “It allows us to focus on sites that are important to bats while allowing appropriate access in the face of the disease.”
The Forest Service’s approach is to prohibit the use of caving gear that has been used in U.S. states and Canadian provinces where white-nose syndrome has been confirmed and to require decontamination of equipment when entering caves. These actions will greatly reduce the chances that the fungus will be inadvertently transmitted to caves on Forest Service land in the Rocky Mountain Region, Truex said. In addition, all caves that are used as hibernation sites will be closed during the winter to minimize disturbance to bats, he said.
Derek Bristol, chair of the Colorado Cave Survey, said the White River National Forest is the most active area for caving in Colorado on Forest Service land.
Last year, the Forest Service made an exception for National Speleological Society members to enter some of the caves on federal property, he said. That includes a cooperative agreement with the agency on cave-management issues, including reports on bat observations, vandalism and other impacts to the caves. The Colorado Cave Survey and similar groups educate members about not only cave safety but also conservation. Because of that, members take care to avoid negative impacts on bats, Bristol said.
“Pretty much anybody who considers themselves part of the caving community cares deeply about conserving caves, and bats are a big part of that,” he said. “I think it’s important to do what we can to prevent the spread of white-nose syndrome. It’s such a serious disease it’s important we follow decontamination protocols and minimize our impact on bats.”
He said he hopes the public will take as much care as avid cavers to minimize impacts on bats, and to follow the rules outlined by the Forest Service.
National bat expert Mies said that the health of both the environment and the economy depend on a diversity of bats.
Bats are the primary predator of nighttime insects, and they eat tons of agricultural pests. They can eat up to 2,000 insects in one night, Mies said.
In a matter of only two years white-nose syndrome spread from New York to nine other states. If it spreads across the entire U.S., there would be tremendous impacts on the environment and the economy, with farmers increasing their use of pesticides and crop prices going up because of the added measures taken to control pests, Mies said.