RICHMOND, Vt.— The Center for Biological Diversity praised today’s announcement that the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service will close caves and mines in the national refuge system to reduce the spread of a disease that’s fatal to bats. While most important bat caves have long been closed on refuges to protect bats from human disturbance, the new policy also closes mines, which can also be significant roosting and hibernating sites for bats, particularly in western states. Approximately nine different refuges with mine complexes will see these sites made off-limits by the new directive. The agency is also planning to implement new research and monitoring protocols for those caves to address white-nose syndrome.
“This is another important step toward stemming this disease and slowing its westward spread,” said Mollie Matteson, a conservation advocate at the Center, which earlier this year filed an emergency petition with the federal government to close all caves under its jurisdiction to prevent spread of the disease. “More than 1 million bats have already been killed by this disease in the East, and there’s no sign that it’s letting up. We need to act aggressively if we’re going to stop it from wiping out entire species.”
White-nose syndrome first appeared in the Northeast in 2006 and has since spread westward in a broad swath, leaving decimated bat populations in its wake. Six bat species have seen lethal effects so far, including several that have been nearly wiped out in Vermont, New York and other eastern states. Three other species have been spotted with the fungus on them, but no dead individuals have been detected yet.
Three federally listed endangered bat species — the Indiana bat, Virginia big-eared bat and gray bat — occur within the area already affected by the bat disease. A fourth, the Ozark big-eared bat, which is found in Oklahoma and Missouri, is likely to be at risk soon.
The fungus attacks bats in winter while they are hibernating in caves and mines. It grows on their muzzles and wings and appears to cause them to rouse frequently, ultimately leading to starvation and death. Biologists believe that bats get the disease from direct contact with each other and with fungus in cave soils. Humans have likely inadvertently transmitted the fungus from cave to cave as well, scientists say. Decontamination of clothing and caving gear is only partially successful at killing the fungus.
The U.S. Forest Service closed caves in its eastern and southern regions to recreational access more than a year ago, and some National Park Service and state-owned caves in the East have also been closed as a result of the bat illness. Earlier this summer, the Forest Service ordered the closure of all caves on national forests and grasslands in Colorado, Nebraska, Kansas, and most of Wyoming and South Dakota. The agency acted after the fungus associated with white-nose syndrome was found on a bat in western Oklahoma this spring.
The Bureau of Land Management, which has jurisdiction over 253 million acres of federal land, has also recommended targeted cave closures and other measures to stem the spread of white-nose syndrome.
Land managers nationwide have been waiting for more than a year for the Fish and Wildlife Service to finalize a white-nose syndrome national response plan, which is intended to include specific recommendations on how government agencies should prepare for and respond to the bat disease.
“We need a comprehensive national response plan to attack this crisis at every available level,” said Matteson. “Right now we’re the best defense these bats have against this deadly disease, and we have to make sure we live up to our responsibility.”