For Immediate Release
Mollie Matteson, Center for Biological Diversity, (802) 434-2388 (office)
Forest Service Will Close Caves in Rocky Mountain Region to Protect Bats From Lethal Disease
Group Advocates for Closures Across West
RICHMOND, Vt. - More than six months after the Center for Biological Diversity filed a petition to close all federally managed bat caves in the lower 48 states, the U.S. Forest Service has indicated it intends to close caves on federal forests and grasslands in Colorado, Kansas, Nebraska and most of Wyoming and South Dakota. A devastating bat-killing disease known as white-nose syndrome has spread rapidly from its original epicenter in upstate New York four years ago. The Center has demanded that more proactive steps be taken to protect bats, which are dying by the millions in the eastern half of the country.
The closures would limit human access to the caves in hopes of stemming the spread of the disease, which scientists believe can be transported from cave to cave on clothing, boots, caving gear and other equipment.
"The regional office is to be commended for taking action to protect bats now, before this devastating epidemic shows up there," said Mollie Matteson, conservation advocate for the Center for Biological Diversity. "Already, the white-nose syndrome fungus has leapfrogged into western Oklahoma from the Midwest. It is a hair's breadth from Colorado. The other federal land agencies of the West need to act now, as well."
The closure order, expected within the next couple of weeks, will be in effect for 12 months, and could last longer. Caves on national forests in the South and East have been closed under similar orders since the spring of 2009. Some states have also closed state-owned caves to protect bats, and a few other federal land units, such as Great Smoky Mountains National Park, have made caves off-limits to recreational access in an attempt to stem the spread of the illness.
White-nose syndrome was first documented in a cave in upstate New York in early 2006, and started killing bats in large numbers in the winter of 2007-2008. The disease radiated out from New York to Vermont, Massachusetts and other Northeast states. The fungus associated with the disease has since been found on bats in 14 states and two Canadian provinces, and bats throughout much of the affected area are now dying at extremely high rates - up to 100 percent in some infected caves. Scientists fear that several species could be completely wiped out within a few years' time. A total of nine bat species are now affected, and surveys in the Northeast, where white-nose syndrome has been ravaging bats the longest, reveal that several species are close to being regionally extinct.
Researchers believe the white-nose fungus spreads primarily via bat-to-bat transmission, and that bats can also pick it up from infected caves. Humans do not appear to be susceptible to the disease themselves but scientists believe people can spread it.
"Bats are essential members of North America's ecosystems, eating immense quantities of insects every night, and helping to keep bug populations in check," said Matteson. "If we ignore the need to take precautionary measures to protect bats, we do so not only at their peril but also at our own."
In January the Center for Biological Diversity filed a petition to close bat caves on all federal lands in the lower 48 states due to the threat of white-nose syndrome. The Center also filed a petition to designate two white-nose-affected bat species as endangered under the Endangered Species Act. In June, the group notified the government that it intended to sue for failure to respond in time to protect the two bats, which are the eastern small-footed bat and the northern long-eared bat.
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