The Progressive


A project of Common Dreams

For Immediate Release

Mollie Matteson, (802) 318-1487

Forest Service Weakens Bat Protection in Colorado, Wyoming and South Dakota

Re-opens Caves to Recreation Despite Threat of Spreading Deadly Bat Epidemic


Despite the unabated threat of a devastating fungal disease that has already killed nearly 7 million hibernating bats, U.S. Forest Service officials released a plan today to rescind their three-year-old precautionary cave closure policy in the Rocky Mountain Region, including in Colorado and much of Wyoming and South Dakota. The new policy, described in an environmental assessment posted to the Forest Service website, reopens all caves in the region to recreational activities, nullifying an aggressive approach to containing white-nose syndrome unique among western federal land agencies.

"This decision is a terrible blow to efforts to forestall the spread of this wildlife epidemic to the West," said Mollie Matteson, a bat specialist at the Center for Biological Diversity. "It's extremely short-sighted, giving priority to the recreational interests of a small group of people over the survival of western bats, and it ignores all the benefits insect-eating bats provide to the rest of us, including farmers who depend on bats to save them millions of dollars in additional costs by containing crop pests."

The bat malady has already spread to 22 states and five Canadian provinces since 2006, causing mortality rates of more than 95 percent in some eastern bat species. The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service is considering listing three species under the federal Endangered Species Act because of the precipitous drop in their populations due to the disease. Seven bat species are affected by white-nose syndrome so far, and more species will be put at risk if the disease moves into the western half of the country.

Biologists believe the fungal pathogen that causes white-nose syndrome was most likely introduced to the United States by a cave visitor from Europe. The fungus grows on cave bats in Europe but appears to have little effect on them. Bats themselves are the primary vector for the disease in North America, but their migratory ranges are limited. Human transport, on the other hand, could transmit fungal spores hundreds of miles beyond the leading edge of the disease zone and create a new epicenter for its spread.

"Scientists are working frantically to find a cure for this unprecedented wildlife die-off," said Matteson. "It's a race against time, because once the disease spreads into the vast reaches of the West, it may well be too late. Federal land managers need to do everything they can to reduce the risk of humans spreading this disease to western caves. Tragically the Forest Service has decided it cares more about increasing recreational opportunities for cavers than survival chances for bats."

In 2010 the white-nose fungus was found on a bat in western Oklahoma. No disease has since been found there, but white-nose syndrome is now rapidly taking hold in Missouri. At the time of the Oklahoma discovery, the Rocky Mountain region followed the example set by the Eastern and Southern regions of the agency, as well as most National Park Service units, and implemented a blanket closure policy for its caves. However, most western federal land managers -- including those overseeing all other western regions of Forest Service and nearly all Bureau of Land Management lands -- did nothing, despite the urging of some biologists within the agencies to act quickly. With the Rocky Mountain region's reversal of its cave policy, virtually no federal caves in the West -- with the exception of most in national parks, and a couple dozen in New Mexico -- are off-limits to the unchecked comings and goings of cave visitors and explorers.

At the Center for Biological Diversity, we believe that the welfare of human beings is deeply linked to nature — to the existence in our world of a vast diversity of wild animals and plants. Because diversity has intrinsic value, and because its loss impoverishes society, we work to secure a future for all species, great and small, hovering on the brink of extinction. We do so through science, law and creative media, with a focus on protecting the lands, waters and climate that species need to survive.

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