Appeal says new rules won’t protect bats from white-nose syndrome
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By Summit Voice
SUMMIT COUNTY — Conservation groups say U.S. Forest Service officials made an arbitrary and capricious decision when they replaced a widespread cave and mine closure with a weaker rule that could lead to the introduction of a deadly bat disease in the Rocky Mountain region.
In its appeal, the Center for Biological Diversity said that required decontamination procedures are questionable at best under field conditions, and that mandatory closures of caves when white-nose syndrome is detected within 250 miles doesn’t go far enough to protect bats.
Travelers and cave visitors could easily span that distance before the disease is ever detected, thus inadvertently spreading the disease into West, which so far has remained free of the disease that has wiped out more than 5 million bats across the eastern U.S.
Biologists believe the disease is transmitted primarily from bat to bat, but don’t rule out the possibility of human transmission — it’s believed that the fungal disease was first introduced into American caves in the northeast by a visitor who picked up spores from the fungus in Europe. European bats appear to have been living with the fungus a long time; it grows on them in winter, as it does on North American hibernating bats, but in Europe the fungus does not make bats ill.
There’s no clear evidence that a complete cave closure will prevent the disease from spreading, but in the absence of any other options, conservation advocates favor a better-safe-than-sorry policy.
There’s also doesn’t appear to be any hard science showing that a 250-mile trigger point is adequate to protect caves, since bats are known to fly several hundred miles on migratory journeys, but Forest Service biologists said the distance is based on guidance from an interagency task force studying the disease. Forest Service documents related to the new policy are online here.
“Rather than opening up Rocky Mountain caves under pressure from a narrow interest group, the Forest Service should maintain the strongest protections possible for bats in the face of this unprecedented wildlife epidemic,” said Mollie Matteson, a bat specialist with the Center for Biological Diversity. “The agency’s own analysis shows that opening caves will increase the risk of spread of this devastating disease, yet the agency is now doing just that — it makes no sense.”
The western United States has the highest number of bat species in the country, and biologists know relatively little about most of them, in part because of their reclusive nature. Bats are difficult to survey in their wintering sites, some of which appear to be in caves at high elevation in remote wilderness areas. Biologists believe they are key players in the ecosystems in which they occur, being the only predators of many night-flying insects such as moths and beetles.
White-nose syndrome has spread to 22 states and five Canadian provinces, killing nearly 7 million bats since the fungus was detected in an upstate New York cave. Some scientists are characterizing the spread of the disease as the worst wildlife crisis in North American history. It has struck seven bat species so far and is expected to affect more species as it spreads into new areas.
The groups filing the appeal include the Colorado Bat Society, Wyoming Outdoor Council, Great Old Broads for Wilderness and Biodiversity Conservation Alliance. The groups say the Forest Service did not meet its stated purpose for the plan, which is to reduce the risk of human spread of the fungus or disease. By reopening caves the agency has chosen to make bats in the region more vulnerable. The groups are requesting the agency redo its analysis to include the current science on the bat-killing fungus and its impacts on bats.
“With this policy change, the Rocky Mountain Region of the Forest Service will go from having the nation’s most protective policy against white-nose syndrome to one of the worst. There’s just no justification for this backsliding,” said Matteson. “It’s great to encourage cavers’ goodwill and seek their assistance in learning more about bats, but the Forest Service shouldn’t be placating them at the risk of killing off these crucial animals.”
“Bats consume tons of agricultural pests and other insects, thereby providing critical ecological services for human health and stable ecosystem function that far outweigh the purely recreational needs of people at this time,” said Rick Adams, a bat biologist and president of the Colorado Bat Society. “In fact, with the loss of bats that provide the guano to fuel underground ecosystems, the unique biological values of caves will be lost in our lifetime.”
In developing its plan, the Forest Service did no actual analysis of the economic value of cave recreation activity to the region, yet relied on that rationale to open caves. And the agency made no mention of the economic value of bats, which scientists have estimated based on the amount of pesticides farmers are able to forego because of the freely provided, bug-eating services of bats. In Colorado alone a 2010 study estimated the value of pest-consuming bats to agriculture at $436 million per year, or 22 percent of the total market value of crops sold.