Bracing for white nose syndrome

Western scientists take precautions against a deadly bat disorder

  • A little brown bat exhibits the distinctive muzzle of fungal growth, indicating that it's infected with white nose syndrome.

    U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service
 

Page 2

Although Fort Stanton Cave is about 1,000 miles away from the nearest infected site, the BLM is not taking any chances. Last year, the agency added a new condition to its cave-access permits: Groups must decontaminate their gear and clothing at home before entering, and use the field decontamination station near the cave's entrance upon exiting.

Another New Mexico cave system, Carlsbad Caverns National Park, is an unlikely site for white nose syndrome. The fungus grows at temperatures below 68 degrees Fahrenheit, but the Carlsbad bats roost in a part of the cave that is 70 degrees. And the bat that is known for its spectacular summer flights out of the cave, the Brazilian free-tail bat, doesn't hibernate; it migrates to Mexico. Nonetheless, the park is taking precautions. Visitors to the main cavern are not asked to decontaminate because the area is not bat habitat. But recreational cavers, who crawl in the smaller passageways where there may be bats, are requested to do so.

If spelunkers have visited any disease-stricken sites in the past five years, they are asked to leave all the gear and clothing they used in that cave at home. If they have caved anywhere in the East in the past five years, they are asked to follow the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service's decontamination protocol -- the same process the BLM uses at Fort Stanton Cave -- before entering. The National Speleological Society, a cave recreation, science and conservation group, has asked its members not to bring caving gear from the East into caves in other regions, and to decontaminate gear and clothing between caves.

At least six Western states have added decontamination to their scientific collection permits, which biologists must obtain before they capture any bats for study, at the recommendation of the Western Bat Working Group. New Mexico and Montana merely require scientists to read the federal decontamination protocol. New Mexico also forbids the use of bat-trapping equipment that has been used in the East.

In Arizona, scientists are in the process of checking approximately 100,000 abandoned mines for bats before those mines are sealed for safety reasons, says Angie McIntire, bat management coordinator for Arizona Game and Fish. The department previously required scientists to decontaminate collection equipment between each cave -- a time-consuming process, given that some entered up to 30 caves a day. "We are evaluating how stringent we need to be," she says. It makes sense to ask for decontamination when researchers travel from East to West, but less so for researchers traveling within the Western states, she says.

Even Ormsbee, whose committee originally requested the stringent procedures, is pulling back. "At first, we thought we had to decontaminate everything. But now we just try to do the best we can under the circumstances. The objective isn't to sterilize 100 percent of all surfaces."

And scientists and land managers are taking other actions to prepare for white nose syndrome -- looking for the syndrome's tell-tale scarring on the wings of bats during summer surveys and conducting winter counts at hibernation sites to determine normal population levels. Whenever they examine abandoned mines, they report any new hibernation sites they find.

White nose syndrome is still an abstraction to most people, even those who care about the West's bats, but for BLM manager Bilbo, the threat is all too real. "We had a scare last year," he says. "Cavers photographed bats with white stuff on their faces." It turned out to be a false alarm -- powdery limestone from the cave walls.

"If humans are part of it, then we are doing everything possible" at Fort Stanton Cave, says Bilbo. "If it is spread by bats, then all we can do is wait."

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