National Forest caves closed due to bat illness, speleology groups affected

A little brown bat is captured in the foreground - File photo
A little brown bat is captured in the foreground - File photo

Atlanta, GA – The United States Forestry Service has closed most of the caves and mines on National Forests in the Southeastern U.S. for 12 months endeavoring to protect bats, according to Regional Forester Liz Agpaoa.

“We are working to stop the uncontrolled spread of White Nose Syndrome (WNS) among bat species,” she said. “The closures will allow scientists and land managers time to work together and study the fungus, learn how it spreads and how to best address it.”

A 12-month closure order was signed by Agpaoa on May 21, 2009; all caves and abandoned mines on National Forests and units in 13 Southeastern states from Virginia to Oklahoma and Florida will be closed unless posted as open. All uses would be prohibited except organized rescue efforts and other actions specifically authorized by the agency.

White Nose Syndrome is the name of a white fungus that appears on the muzzles and wings of hibernating bats. Scientists are trying to determine how WNS affects bats. The disease is responsible for hundreds of thousands of bat deaths and is making its way across the United States. It is likely being spread by humans to bats by transporting spores from cave to cave.

The disease causes the bats to leave their hibernacula before the appropriate time. This leaves the bats coming out of hibernation extremely underweight and in a desperate effort to survive they fly during the daylight hours, in search of insects that are not available until spring.

On April 24, 2009, in an effort to slow the spread of WNS, the Eastern Region (Region 9) issued a one-year cave and abandoned mine closure order. The closures affected the caving plans of The International Congress of Speleology, canceling trips in those states.

According to the U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service, thousands of people have visited the affected caves and mines and there have been no reported illnesses attributable to WNS. They are still learning about the disease but know of no risk to humans at this time from contact with affected bats. However, they do urge caution to not expose yourself unnecessarily to WNS.

Article by Marc Parker

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