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For Immediate Release, September 25, 2012

Contact: Mollie Matteson, (802) 318-1487

Leading Scientific Organization: More Caves Must Be Closed to Slow Bat Epidemic

American Institute of Biological Sciences Recognizes Human Role in
Spread of Disease That Has Killed Nearly 7 Million Bats

WASHINGTON-– One of the nation’s leading scientific organizations, the American Institute of Biological Sciences, is calling for cave closures to prevent people from spreading white-nose syndrome, the deadly fungal disease that has already killed nearly 7 million bats in North America in six years. In an editorial in the latest issue of Bioscience entitled “Quarantine the Caves,” editor-in-chief Dr. Timothy Beardsley concludes, “Preventing human contamination of vulnerable environments should now be a priority.” 

“The country’s leading scientists understand the role people play in spreading this deadly bat disease,” said Mollie Matteson, a bat specialist with the Center for Biological Diversity, which this spring petitioned the White House for national action on the disease outbreak. “If we’re going to stop this disease from further decimating America’s bats, it’s time for federal policymakers to follow these scientific recommendations.”

In the eastern United States, caves on most federal lands, many state lands and some private lands are closed to non-essential human access to prevent spread of white-nose syndrome by people and to minimize disturbance to already weakened bat populations. Cave access across most of the West, however, remains largely unrestricted, including thousands of caves on Bureau of Land Management and U.S. Forest Service lands. To date, caves have been closed in only the Rocky Mountain Region of the Forest Service, which includes Colorado and Wyoming, and on federal land in New Mexico, where only about two dozen caves have been closed.

White-nose syndrome has spread to 19 states and four Canadian provinces. Now considered the worst wildlife health crisis in North American history, the disease has been documented in seven bat species, and this winter was confirmed in Missouri, the first state west of the Mississippi River. Two federally endangered bats have been struck by the malady: the Indiana bat and the gray bat. Several species, including the once common little brown bat, northern long-eared bat, and tri-colored bat, have declined by more than 90 percent in affected regions.

A number of states including Massachusetts, Vermont, Wisconsin and Pennsylvania have added, or are in the process of adding, white-nose-affected bat species to their state endangered species lists. Biologists are concerned the disease will soon appear in the western United States, which could threaten many more bat species with catastrophic population losses and possibly extinction. The greatest fear has been a human-transmitted long-distance jump of the disease into a new region, such as the Rockies or the Pacific Northwest.

The Center has been a leader in the effort to enact stronger measures, including calling for cave closures on public lands, to protect bats threatened by white-nose syndrome. The Center petitioned all federal land-management agencies to close caves in 2010 and petitioned the White House Council on Environmental Quality earlier this year to direct the agencies to enact closures.

The Center has also formally requested Endangered Species Act protection for three bat species: the northern long-eared bat, the eastern small-footed bat and the little brown bat. In response, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service determined earlier this year that the northern long-eared and eastern small-footed bats may warrant protection, with a final decision due in 2013. The Service also intends to issue a decision on the little brown bat next year.

“The seventh winter of white-nose syndrome will soon be wreaking havoc on our beleaguered bats,” said Matteson. “The overwhelming scientific consensus is that putting caves off-limits to people, except in emergencies or for important scientific research, is one of the best ways we know to slow this rapidly unfolding crisis. There’s no reason to delay this common-sense step.”

The American Institute of Biological Sciences is an independent scientific association comprised of individual biology professionals as well as 160 member organizations such as the Ecological Society of America, Society for Conservation Biology and dozens of academic and research institutions.

The Center for Biological Diversity is a national, nonprofit conservation organization with more than 375,000 members and online activists dedicated to the protection of endangered species and wild places.

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