White-nose syndrome forces cave closings

White-nose syndrome, a mysterious disease that has been killing hundreds of thousands of North American bats since its discovery in 2007, has now forced the U.S. Forest Service to close caves in national forests across the country in an attempt to rein in transmission of the disease.

The disease is caused by a cold-loving fungus that infects bats’ faces and wings during the winter months, disrupting their hibernation patterns and causing them to starve to death.  An estimated half a million bats have died from the affliction, and scientists have found piles of dead bats around caves where mortality can be up to 90 percent of a cave’s roosting population.

According to a New York Times report:

“A Forest Service biologist, Becky Ewing, said an emergency order was issued last week for caves in 20 states from Minnesota to Maine. A second order covering the Forest Service’s 13-state Southern region should be issued this month.”

At a briefing for conservation partners in Washington on April 30, scientists and managers from the National Park Service, the Fish and Wildlife Service and the U.S. Geological Survey gave an update about the status of this mysterious disease. Jeremy Coleman of the FWS said that although transmission of the fungus is likely bat-to-bat, they don’t have enough data yet on the fungus, a previously undescribed species of Geomyces.  The FWS had requested a voluntary ban on caving in the affected areas, but does not have the authority to close caves, said Wendy Weber, also of the FWS.

Although the Times story quotes representatives of the caving industry who are supportive of the measure, the caving ban stands to affect the livelihood of commercial cavers on forest service lands. At last week’s briefing, several representatives from the caving community expressed their frustration at the level of communication from government agencies, saying they feel “in the dark” about the research and management decisions about WNS.

Read more about WNS and a new program being tested to curb bat deaths in this ESA press release.

Photo courtesy Nancy Heaslip, New York Department of Environmental Conservation

Author: Christine Buckley

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