Deadly bat-killing fungus confirmed west of the Mississippi this year
By Bob Berwyn
SUMMIT COUNTY — The U.S. Forest Service is considering some changes to the way it manages caves on national forest lands to prevent the spread of white-nose syndrome, a disease that has wiped out millions of bats in the eastern U.S. in the past few years.
In the northern Rockies, (Region 1) the agency is leaning toward a permit system that would require cave visitors to register and agree to certain conditions aimed protecting bats from the disease and gaining information on bat populations at the same time, according to Forest Service wildlife biologist Kristi Swisher.
She said the final decision is up to a new incoming regional forester, slated to take over the region in the next few weeks. The “closure with permitted entry” regulation would encompass an existing national rule requiring decontamination procedures, along with a bat survey to help land managers learn more about bat populations.
Region 2, (Colorado, Kansas, Nebraska, South Dakota, and Wyoming) enacted a blanket emergency closure of caves and abandoned mines two years ago, as awareness about the potential threat of white nose syndrome grew.
The closure prompted complaints from the small but vocal caving community, which questioned the effectiveness of the entry ban, as well as the agency’s ability to enforce the restrictions. As well, cavers say it’s not clear that the disease can be spread from cave to cave by people. Most documented cases of transmission have been from bat to bat.
But the caving community, which wants access, and the conservation community, which has been pushing for standardized policies, including widespread closures, appear to be at least partially satisfied with the middle-ground approach proposed by the Forest Service.
Region 2 is also weighing several options, including a policy similar to the closed with permitted entry policy under consideration in the northern Rockies, according to regional spokesman Steve Segin. The current region 2 closure expires at the end of July; the Forest Service hopes to have an informal public process on any new policy it might consider.
“We don’t know if this is going to move into the West. If it does show up, we don’t know how it will spread there,” Swisher said. ” Psychologically it’s going to have a big impact … people were hoping it wouldn’t move west, or south, and now it’s west of the Mississippi,” she said.
The fungal disease has wiped out about 7 million bats, including entire bat colonies in the eastern U.S. It has gradually been spreading south and west. Bats are critical in many ecoystems, devouring huge quantities of insects and pollinating both wild and domestic plants. The loss of bat populations in some areas will cause millions of dollars of economic losses.
In March, federal researchers confirmed the disease in Missouri. With more than 6,000 caves, USGS scientists said the risk of the disease spreading farther west through the state is profound.
One of the big challenges in the West is that less is known about where bats live,” Swisher said, advocating for preemptive action to protect bat populations in the region.
As cavers advocated for access, they speculate that western populations may be less susceptible to the spread of the disease because they live in smaller colonies that are more spread out. While that may make sense intuitively, there’s no scientific evidence to support that point of view.
As a result, Swisher and other wildlife biologists say it’s worth taking every possible precaution.
“We know it’s moving our direction, and it’s up in Canada … We don’t always have the option to be pro-active,” Swisher said. “By minimizing entry, if you play the numbers game you’re cutting down on the chances for any potential spread. To me, biologically, it makes sense, consider the devastating economic effects,” she said.
Swisher emphasized the educational aspects of the permitted entry approach and said it’s an opportunity for biologists to learn more about bats in western caves before the disease hits.
“We’ve tried to make it more reasonable and provide access to the folks that want to get in there … it’s much more flexible than it was last year. We were able to coordinate more with the cavers and the public,” she said.
Filed under: biodiversity, endangered species, Environment, public lands, US Forest Service Tagged: | bats, cave access policies, Forest Service, United States, western bats, Western United States, white-nose syndrome