Forest Service installing cave gates to save bats
White River National Forest is in the process of installing a gate on Spring Cave near Meeker, and Hubbard Cave near Glenwood Springs is likely to be next in line.
The gates would complement existing closures and other measures intended to halt the spread of white-nose syndrome, a disease that has decimated eastern bat populations.
While western bat colonies tend to be smaller than their lowland counterparts, the area has “a tremendous bat population,” according to district wildlife biologist Phil Nyland. And while they generally get less attention than other wildlife, their impact is considerable.
“They serve a tremendous ecological purpose in terms of the number of insects they eat, including mosquitoes,” Nyland said.
As such, land management authorities took no chances when white nose began to spread across the country. The Rocky Mountain region issued a blanket closure in 2010. In 2013, some caves were reopened on a seasonal basis, although caves on public land still require a permit to access regardless of whether there’s a sign or gate.
Hubbard remains closed year round, while Spring Cave, a winter roosting site, is open to cavers from mid-April through mid-August. Even without the threat of white nose, the bats are better off left alone during the cold months, Nyland noted.
“They’re vulnerable to disturbance during hibernation, and it takes them a long time to return their metabolism to that previous state, which requires energy and makes them more vulnerable to starvation, disease, cold,” he said.
Gate construction on Spring Cave follows a public scoping period in April and is assisted by local community corrections labor. Support from GeoCorps has also allowed the Forest Service to provide some personnel to educate visitors about the cave.
“The overall reaction has been really positive,” said Stephanie Bouchey, one of two summer hires assigned to the cave on busy days. “Everyone seems to understand that white nose is a problem.”
Nevertheless, evidence shows that many visitors don’t obey the rules. Gates on both entrances to the cave will allow bats through in the winter while keeping people out. One gate will be left open in the summer to provide access for permitted cavers. It’s more likely to be a hindrance for curious amateurs than dedicated enthusiasts, observed Ken Headrick, head of the Colorado Western Slope Grotto, a caving club based in Rifle.
“When they say it’s closed with a sign, the public doesn’t always abide, but serious cavers usually comply,” he said. “It’s tough to gate every cave, so you focus on the ones with easy access.”
Headrick saw a major shift in the caving community during the three-year closure. Those who stuck it out exploring on private land or eschewing the underground entirely are generally eager to protect the bats and obey the rules.
The Western Slope Grotto follows the decontamination procedures for gear outlined at whitenosesyndrome.org, which includes extensive submersion in hot water or treatment with disinfectants like alcohol or bleach. Headrick stopped visiting Hubbard and other major bat haunts even before official closures, and generally supports limitations. That doesn’t mean he wouldn’t like Spring Cave open a couple weeks later, when low water levels allow deeper access.
“There’s one weekend a year when all the cavers try to hit it at once, and that’s not good for it,” he said.
Still, gates can have other benefits beyond protecting the bats. Spring Cave has lots of graffiti, and Fulford Cave, near Eagle, has had most of its accessible formations damaged or removed.
“The public can destroy a cave,” Headrick observed. “It’s really sad.”
By contrast, gated Groaning Cave, the longest set of passages in the state, is relatively pristine.
As for whether the recent discovery of white nose in Washington state — the first case west of Oklahoma — will lead to any new policies, officials are noncommittal.
“We’re contemplating what our next management action will be, but at this time there’s no change to the restrictions,” Nyland said. “The public is still required to register and decontaminate.”
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