For Immediate Release, May 16, 2012
Contact: Mollie Matteson, (802) 318-1487
Lawsuit Filed to Force Forest Service to Release Crucial Bat Documents
Forest Service in Montana, Idaho Has Not Acted to Protect Bats From Deadly White-nose Syndrome
WASHINGTON— The Center for Biological Diversity filed a federal lawsuit against the northern region of the Forest Service today for withholding documents about cave closures and other measures in Idaho and Montana that could reduce risk of transmission of a disease that is wiping out bats across the eastern United States and is fast spreading west.
The malady, known as white-nose syndrome, has killed nearly 7 million bats, from Nova Scotia to Missouri, over the past six years. So far the agency’s northern region has failed to enact any regulations to stop cave visitors from spreading the disease to healthy bat populations.
“Forest Service officials have utterly failed to protect bats in the northern Rockies from white-nose syndrome by creating common-sense restrictions on human access to caves,” said Mollie Matteson, a bat specialist with the Center. “This lack of action is in sharp contrast to three other regions of the Service that have all closed caves to people. Adding insult to injury, the agency’s northern region is refusing to release documents related to its evaluation of the risk of the horrific illness spreading there.”
The Center’s lawsuit, filed in federal court in the District of Columbia, faults the Forest Service for redacting and withholding documents requested under the Freedom of Information Act. The group was seeking documents related to an announcement last year that the agency was considering closures of bat caves in Montana and northern Idaho; since that announcement, the Service has taken no further action and appears to have dropped urgently needed plans to protect bats. The Center’s request sought to discover why.
“The time for action to protect bats in the northern Rocky Mountains is now. If we wait until the disease gets here to do anything, it will be too late, and the region will be devastated by the loss of its bats, just like the entire eastern United States,” said Matteson. “If the Forest Service has evidence to show that there isn’t a clear and present danger and therefore action isn’t needed, the agency should simply show us the documents to prove it.”
White-nose syndrome first appeared at a commercial cave in upstate New York in 2006. The disease has all the hallmarks of a novel pathogen, introduced from elsewhere. Biologists believe a visitor who had previously been in a cave in Europe inadvertently transported the fungus to North America. (Scientists have discovered the fungus on European bats as well, but they do not suffer ill effects.) Although bats can also transport the disease, it is easily spread on boots, clothing, caving gear and other objects, providing a vector for long-distance dispersal beyond the range of natural bat migration.
In 2009 the Forest Service prohibited recreational access into most of its caves in the eastern and southern regions. In 2010, after the discovery of the white-nose syndrome fungus on a bat in western Oklahoma, 900 miles from the closest known white-nose syndrome site, the Rocky Mountain region of the Forest Service followed suit. The National Park Service has also tightened recreational access into its caves, and a number of states have restricted access into state-owned bat caves.
White-nose has been expanding very rapidly. In just six years, it has spread from upstate New York to bat colonies in 19 states and four Canadian provinces. In northeastern states, where the bat disease has been present the longest, bat populations are down by more than 90 percent. Biologists believe several bat species may become extinct as a result of white-nose syndrome.
The loss of bats is potentially an economic disaster too. Scientists have estimated that insect-eating bats consume enough agricultural pests to be worth $22 billion annually to American farmers.
For more information, visit SaveOurBats.org.
The Center for Biological Diversity is a national, nonprofit conservation organization with more than 350,000 members and online activists dedicated to the protection of endangered species and wild places.