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Forest Service Implements Rules at National Cave Convention in Colorado to Prevent Spread of Bat-killing Disease
GLENWOOD SPRINGS, Colo. - June 14 - Attendees at a national caving convention in Colorado have been granted access to caves in the White River National Forest — closed since last summer due to the bat-killing epidemic called white-nose syndrome — but will have to adhere to strict rules to limit the risk of spreading the disease. The U.S. Forest Service is granting an exemption to its ban on cave access in the Rocky Mountain Region and has granted the National Speleological Society a special-use permit that includes strict stipulations on which caves may be visited and what gear used.
Last summer, the Forest Service issued an emergency cave closure for the region in response to the westward movement of white-nose syndrome, which has already killed more than 1 million bats in North America. Biologists believe that humans, as well as bats, have the ability to spread the fungus associated with the disease.
“White-nose syndrome has already exacted a terrible toll on bats in the eastern United States and put several species at risk of extinction,” said Mollie Matteson, conservation advocate at the Center for Biological Diversity. “Stemming the spread of this terrible disease should be a top priority for all government agencies that oversee wildlife or public land that’s home to bats. The Forest Service knew cavers would be coming to Colorado for this convention and would want to go into caves, so it has tried to impose the most protective rules possible.”
The Forest Service permit allows access to a handful of caves that have very few or no bats. Convention attendees joining cave trips must adhere to strict protocols regarding the gear they use, which must either be decontaminated according to prescribed procedures or have never been previously used for caving. No gear from states or provinces with known white-nose syndrome sites will be allowed at the convention. The Forest Service is requiring post-trip decontamination as well.
“We have been calling for closure of all caves with bats in order to stop the spread of the disease to new regions,” said Matteson. “By precluding entry to known bat caves, this rule is close to what we’ve been asking for and supports the position that bat caves shouldn’t be entered. The Bureau of Land Management needs to enact similar measures, and both agencies need to carefully monitor cave entry during the conference to ensure rules are followed.”
The caving group has also applied for a permit to visit BLM caves in the Glenwood Springs area. The agency has no cave closures for white-nose syndrome in Colorado, and while it recently issued a proposal for limited, seasonal closures of caves under the jurisdiction of the Colorado River Valley Field Office, there are no requirements currently in place for decontamination or restrictions on gear brought into caves.
In the eastern United States, white-nose syndrome has devastated populations of hibernating bats. Since its discovery in a cave in upstate New York in 2006, the disease has spread to 17 states and four Canadian provinces. The fungus believed to cause white-nose syndrome was also found on bats in Missouri and western Oklahoma in 2010. Scientists believe the epidemic has the potential to affect all two dozen hibernating bat species in the United States, and left unchecked could cause the extinction of one or more species. Earlier this year, a study published in Science estimated that the value of insect-eating bats to agriculture in the United States was $3.7 billion to $53 billion per year.