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Colorado: Legal battle over bat caves brewing

Conservation group files lawsuit challenging BLM permits to visit caves

A battle over protecting bats and bats caves is brewing in Colorado. PHOTO COURTESY U.S. GEOLOGICAL SURVEY.

By Bob Berwyn

SUMMIT COUNTY — State and federal resource managers in Colorado have been at odds over a decision to permit the National Speleological Society to visit several caves later this month when the caving group holds its annual convention in Glenwood Springs. A national conservation group, the Center for Biological Diversity, is now challenging the permit in federal court.

Despite warnings from the Colorado Division of Wildlife, the federal Bureau of Land Management last month issued a permit for  several caves on BLM land in the northwestern part of the state.

According to the BLM, the caves are not used extensively by bats. but state biologists said previously there has been some documented use of the caves by Townsend’s big-eared bats, a species of special concern in Colorado. Click here to read about state bat conservation efforts. The CDOW white-nose syndrome response plan can also be seen here.

The cavers — a conscientious group — have agreed to strict conditions to try and protect bat populations from the spread of white-nose syndrome, a deadly fungal disease that’s wiping out bats in the eastern part of the U.S. Bats play a key ecosystem role by pollinating many commercial crops and wild plants, and by keeping insect populations in check. Read this story to learn more.

BLM officials said allowing the guided tours with strict conditions will minimize the risk of spreading white-nose syndrome. The agency’s permit limits the group to a handful of visits per cave with no more than five people per visit.

According to the BLM, an approved leader for each tour will ensure the cave visitors follow the latest protocols for decontaminating gear to reduce the risk of spreading the white-nose syndrome fungus.

“Providing convention attendees an outlet for caving under these strictly controlled conditions will help mitigate risk of introducing White-nose Syndrome and encourage any visitation to these areas to occur under the oversight of an experienced local guide,” said BLM Colorado River Valley Field Manager Steve Bennett.

Click here to read about efforts by federal biologists are trying to develop a national bat conservation plan.

But conservation advocates say the risks are just too high, and last week filed a lawsuit challenging the BLM’s decision.

“The BLM is … risking further spread of one of the worst wildlife diseases in modern times,” said Mollie Matteson, a conservation advocate with the Center for Biological Diversity, which has petitioned to prohibit all-but-essential human travel into bat caves to stem the spread of the disease.

“North America’s bats are too important to risk spreading white-nose syndrome for purely recreational purposes. Until we know more about this deadly epidemic, people need to stay out of caves with bats,” Matteson said.

According to the Matteson, state biologists in April expressed concerns about use of the caves, and about the BLM’s consideration of instituting only seasonal closures for caves in Colorado, stating that, “[b]ased on the current knowledge of this disease and how it persists in the environment, seasonal closures could leave priority sites vulnerable to introduction and spread of the fungus.”

State biologists recommended that the BLM in Colorado take an approach similar to that taken by the BLM in New Mexico, which issued year-round closures for a number of important bat caves.

But since then, the Colorado Division of Wildlife has changed its position on the BLM caves, according to Richard Rhinehart, editor of a Colorado-based caving population. Rhinehart said that, after doing more research on the caves, the agency agrees that there is little risk to bats from the planned visits, especially with the extensive decontamination procedures used by the caving group.

Rhinehart said the visitors will use brand-new caving gear that’s never been outside the state of Colorado to minimize the risk.

For the conservation biologists, those measures aren’t adequate.

“Stemming the spread of this deadly, fast-moving disease requires widespread, precautionary measures to keep it from killing bats on a larger scale,” said Matteson. “The BLM’s failure to close caves is putting bats in Colorado and the West at risk.”

The conservation group said that the fungus believed to cause white-nose syndrome,Geomyces destructans, can be spread on the clothes and gear of people visiting caves. Some scientists suspect that the disease is a recent import from Europe, likely transported by someone who visited a cave there and then came to North America.

Colorado Division of Wildlife biologists have said they’re not sure exactly how the fungus spreads. Human transmission is one possibility and bat-to-bat transmission is probably the biggest factor. The disease has emerged so quickly and destructively that the research is lagging behind.

In any case, on of the first precepts of conservation biology is to play it safe. When in doubt, the right path is to be as careful as possible, because once the harm is done, it often can’t be reversed.

At a recent congressional hearing, Dr. Justin Boyles of the University of Tennessee, a bat biologist and white-nose syndrome researcher, testified that cave-closure policies for white-nose syndrome are “warranted and prudent” and that human-facilitated movement of the disease could be “disproportionately devastating” to bat populations because of the possibility of long-distance jumps into new regions, creating new disease epicenters.

The Rocky Mountain region of the U.S. Forest Service has closed all caves and instead granted cavers attending the national convention in Colorado special access only to caves where bats were believed absent. The Forest Service also stipulated strict decontamination procedures and caving-gear restrictions to minimize risk that the fungus deadly to bats would be accidentally introduced from infected regions.

State bat biologists with the Colorado Division of Wildlife agreed with Forest Service staff that the national forest caves selected for convention trips hold very few or no bats and were at low risk for disease spread.

The BLM permit finalized last week also requires decontamination and gear restrictions, but state biologists thought the sites chosen were not appropriate due to documented use by bats, including the Townsend’s big-eared bat, a Colorado species of special concern. The BLM has not instituted any other precautionary cave closures for white-nose syndrome in the state.

“White-nose syndrome has devastated bat populations in eastern North America, and western land managers have a unique opportunity to stop this disease from getting a foothold. There is no excuse for not taking the most cautious approach possible, as soon as possible,” Matteson said.

Background


In five years, white-nose syndrome, or the fungus suspected to cause it, has spread from upstate New York to 19 states and four Canadian provinces. It kills 70 percent to 100 percent of affected bat populations. Six bat species are affected thus far, and bats from three other species have been found with the fungus on them but were not yet sick from it. Biologists now estimate that more than 1 million bats have died from the disease and fear that eventually all 25 hibernating bat species in North America could be affected.

Bats are the major predators of night-flying insects in North America, and scientists are also concerned about what their loss may mean in terms of burgeoning insect populations. A recent study published in the journal Science estimated that the value of insect-eating bats’ pest-control services to American farmers is $3.7 billion to $53 billion per year. Bats have been documented to eat significant quantities of insects that attack crops, including corn, cotton, cabbage, tomatoes, fruit trees and timber.

To learn more about bats and white-nose syndrome, go to http://www.saveourbats.org.

CDOW white-nose syndrome response plan:

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