By Richard Rhinehart ~ August 4th, 2010. Filed under: Caving News, Conservation.
Mindful of past inaction that may have resulted in the unintended spread of the White Nose Syndrome fungus to additional caves and inactive mines on federal property in the eastern United States, Deputy Regional Forester Tony Dixonâ€™s bold July 27 order to immediately close entry to thousands of caves and mines in the five state Rocky Mountain Region is likely to be considered as visionary by environmental lobbying organizations such as Arizonaâ€™s Center for Biological Diversity.
Unfortunately, the reality of the closure order is negligible â€“ the Geomyces Destructans pathogen will almost certainly continue to spread among bats throughout the western United States within the next few years, even if Dixonâ€™s order has 100 percent compliance by all Forest visitors. Since the Forest Service controls only a portion of the caves â€“ and bat roosting locations â€“ in the Rocky Mountain West, Dixonâ€™s closure is probably only a show of support for politically influential environmental groups and bat biologists rather than a meaningful policy based upon scientific fact.
Scientific studies indicate the deadly pathogen is mostly spread among bats by bat-to-bat and bat-to-cave contact, which Dixon acknowledges. Yet, the small possibility that humans may unwittingly transmit the spores of the fungus on their clothing, shoes, gear or person has resulted in the Forest Service closing caves across the country. The closure order for the Rocky Mountain Region even goes as far to suggest that commercial cave owners should also close during the winter hibernating season and require all paying visitors to undergo decontamination prior to entering or wear disposable booties and Tyvek suits.
Yet, for all the talk by Dixon and his colleagues in the Golden Region 2 headquarters, consequential actions by the US Forest Service to enforce the regional closure or to educate the public are largely non-existent.
A visit to Coloradoâ€™s most popular non-developed cave, Fulford Cave near Eagle, on the closureâ€™s first weekend indicated low public compliance. On Sunday, August 2, a mid afternoon visit to the popular White River National Forest caveâ€™s trailhead found the parking area full of vehicles and groups descending from the cave. No law enforcement or education specialists were present â€“ the only indication Fulford Cave was closed to the public were hard-to-read closure order signs posted on the campground and trailheadâ€™s bulletin boards. On the trailhead sign, a closure order not unlike a garage sale sign posted on a city street provided the most visible indication something was different.
Contacting the White River National Forest regarding this low-energy closure, the Forest indicated it has neither the manpower nor the funding to provide for more consequential enforcement. The Forest is planning on erecting fencing across the trail to discourage visitors from hiking the historic Civilian Conservation Corps trail to the cave, but admit many Forest visitors often walk around fences in similar trail closures, if no law enforcement is present. The Forest is also enacting closures of access trails to the caves â€“ it is now apparently illegal to walk the foot trail to either Fulford Cave or to Hubbardâ€™s Cave in Glenwood Canyon, even if no entry is intended.
Surprisingly, though all the USFS caves in the state were officially closed by Dixon on July 27, one private outfitter was permitted to conduct trips into Fulford Cave on August 2 and August 3. On both days, the outfitter, Colorado Springs-based Colorado Climbing School, was allowed to lead previously-scheduled trips into the cave. On August 3, the trip was accompanied by a US Forest Service natural resource specialist from the Eagle/Holy Cross Ranger District. A spokesperson for the School confirmed the trips, explaining the group underwent WNS decontamination before and after entering the cave. Plus, the Climbing School had paid for a commercial permit to enter the cave, a factor in the Forestâ€™s decision to allow the trips to proceed as scheduled.
Peter McDonald, the Assistant Program Leader for Threatened, Endangered and Sensitive Species for the Forest Serviceâ€™s Rocky Mountain Region, confirmed August 4 that the closure allows â€ścase-by-case allowances for certain research and commercial activities.â€ť He indicated commercial outfitters will continued to be provided access to closed caves, provided they follow decontamination procedures and acquire commercial permits. Trips into caves by private citizens, however, are strictly prohibited under the order, McDonald emphasized.
Rather than the full compliance Dixon seeks with his regional closure order, the reality is that bats will see no additional protection. Commercial outfitters will continue to make a living from guiding trips into Forest caves if they state they are willing to subject their clients to vigorous decontamination procedures created specifically for bat biologists. Meanwhile, many Forest visitors who know nothing about White Nose Syndrome and the possibility of species extinction will continue to visit popular caves by simply walking around trailhead fencing.
Fortunately, there is interest from individual Forests to reach out to cavers and beginning monitoring of caves and bats, though a research permitting system has yet to be created. If a permit procedure can be developed and implemented, the Forests report they do not have the manpower or the funding to manage permits and confirm decontamination has been undertaken by trip participants.
Other federal agencies, such as the Bureau of Land Management and National Park Service, are closely watching the actions of the US Forest Service. Mindful of the problems arising because of the blanket closure, these agencies may choose selected closures or emphasize public education in their plans. In Wyoming, New Mexico and Colorado, the BLM is actively consulting with cavers to determine a plan that is effective, enforceable, and has the support of the knowledgeable caving community.
For bats in the region, the sooner these procedures are determined and implemented, the better. The pathogen has been found in only one Cave Myotis bat in west-central Oklahoma, but itâ€™s likely the infected bat was only the first of many.Tags: bats, caves, closure, Colorado, US Forest Service, White Nose Syndrome, White River National Forest