By Richard Rhinehart ~ June 29th, 2010. Filed under: Cave Survey, Caving News, Conservation.
Throughout the eastern United States, federal and state land owners have adapted the dramatic step of closing all public caves to visitation in a determined effort to slow the spread of the fungus that leads to White Nose Syndrome among bats. Since first identified in February 2006, the WNS pathogen has spread from New York state to Canada and along the Appalachian Mountains to Tennessee. In the last year, it also has been discovered in Missouri and in western Oklahoma.
Even with the closing of all public caves to human visitors, the pathogen continues to spread each year by hundreds of miles. Biologists are now concerned the pathogen might soon spread to Central and South America, killing bats throughout the Western Hemisphere. Equally as alarming, it is possible the pathogen already is present in caves throughout the Hemisphere, and that some environmental factor is triggering it to affect bats, killing 90 to 95 percent of the infected.
Like something out of a horror novel, the pathogen and Syndrome is spreading faster than ever thought possible, catching land managers in a quandary of whether it is better to close to visitation all possible roosts, such as caves and mines, or to allow nature to take its course. What about bats that donâ€™t roost in mines or caves? How do we protect these? One environmental group is suggesting that to protect these bats, the unprecedented action of closing forests to all human visitors must also be taken.
In Colorado, a group of federal land managers, bat biologists, scientists and cavers have met regularly by telephone for honest conversations throughout this last year. Recognizing the fungus could eventually reach the Centennial State, the group worked together to determine a possible action plan for its arrival. Key to this action plan was a determination for openness and aggressive public education and communication, so that all outdoor visitors will be aware of the issues and the challenges.
By Christmas of 2009, the group had tentatively decided that unlike their counterparts in the eastern United States, Colorado would not necessarily close each and every cave and mine in the state when faced with the approaching pathogen. Instead, targeted closures of particularly sensitive caves known to harbor bats in significant quantities in the proper environmental conditions to grow the pathogen might be a sensible alternative. By closing A, B, and C caves with significant colonies, X, Y, and Z caves could remain open for visitors without endangering the bats within the more significant caves.
Recently, a similar multidiscipline committee in Alabama chose a similar plan â€“ sensitive caves with significant bat colonies within the state would be closed to visitation to protect the bats, while other caves without bats or outside the parameters of the pathogen would remain open.
With the identification of the pathogen in a western Oklahoma cave in early May (interestingly, in a cave never open to the public), the Colorado bat committee understandably showed concern that their several year timeline for discussion had suddenly compressed to only weeks or months. In past instances of the discovery of the WNS pathogen, US Fish and Wildlife promptly recommended to state and federal land owners that all caves and mines in adjoining states be closed to visitations. This has not happened as of yet in Colorado, New Mexico, Kansas or Texas.
Instead, the state is awaiting direction from federal agencies such as the Bureau of Land Management and the US Forest Service as to what route Colorado should take. Given the wide range of elevations, cave types and distances in Colorado, a blanket closure of caves and mines probably does not make sense. Yet, allowing federal agencies based in Washington, with nameless bureaucrats and unnamed industry â€śfriendsâ€ť to be making the decision for Coloradoâ€™s future seems equally as troubling. Simply because Washington says so does not make it right.
Letâ€™s hope Colorado takes a leadership role in the management of White Nose Syndrome in the state. The state and federal agencies should adapt a version of the â€śAlabama Plan,â€ť specifically modified for the unique nature of the Rocky Mountains. Given the remoteness of Coloradoâ€™s caves and their wide spread locations, it will be nearly impossible to patrol all caves to watch for closure violators. A better plan will be to select the top-tier caves with established bat colonies and protect them from unintended human exposure to the White Nose Syndrome pathogen. Even then, entrance signage and public education and communication will be more effective than expending thousands of dollars for entrance gates and protective fencing, not to mention the additional thousands of man hours for law enforcement to patrol the caves.Tags: bats, cave, Cave Survey, closure, White Nose Syndrome