Shutting down the batcave

 

Like some nightmarish scene from a horror film, bats have been dying by the millions from a pervasive, infectious fungus that causes white-nose syndrome. As Madeline Bodin relates in her recent HCN story "Bracing for White-Nose Syndrome" the fungus looks like powder on the faces and wings of bats and kills them by driving them out of hibernation so they freeze or starve.  Because bats play such a big role in controlling insects, snapping up literally tons of mosquitoes and other flying bugs every night, the continued demise of bats would be felt outside the caves where they roost and hibernate.

The fungus has been creeping westward ever since its discovery near Albany, N.Y. in 2006. In May a biologist found an infected bat in western Oklahoma.  Now, the Rocky Mountain Region of the U.S. Forest Service has proposed what some see as a dramatic response – to close all caves to humans to prevent spreading the disease to bats in new areas.

"The only management tool that we have in our box right now for

controlling white-nose syndrome is containment and not spreading it," David Blehert, a PhD scientist at the USGS National Wildlife Health Center who has been researching white-nose syndrome, says in an online video about the fungus.

"We do feel a sense of urgency to act," says Janelle Smith of the Rocky Mountain Region U.S. Forest Service.  The species of bat found infected earlier this spring in Oklahoma also flutters over New Mexico, Arizona, and California.  Cavers, however, are hoping the closure won't happen.

"Like many cavers I feel that the most scientifically-based process would be to close selected caves that are particularly susceptible to contamination, such as caves with large bat colonies," says Richard Rhinehart, Editor of Rocky Mountain Caving, a quarterly journal about caving in Colorado. He is concerned about the loss of caving opportunities through Colorado, Wyoming, and South Dakota.  In Colorado, he estimates about 80 percent of caves are on Forest Service land.

"We understand concerns that the caving community has raised about the loss of recreation opportunities," Smith explains. "The bottom line is our goal is to simply protect the bat population."

Meanwhile if bat-watching (rather than caving) is your thing, check out the Orient Mine in the San Luis Valley of southern Colorado.  The Bureau of Land Management just opened a trailhead near the mine so visitors can view the spectacular emergence of a quarter-million Mexican free-tailed bats from the mine each evening.  Save time for a soak in the nearby hot springs while you're there.

Emilene Ostlind is an intern at High Country News.

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