For Immediate Release, May 7, 2013
Contact: Mollie Matteson, (802) 318-1487
Appeal Filed Against Weakening of Bat Protections by Forest Service in Rocky Mountains
Plan Opens Caves in Colorado, Wyoming, South Dakota, Kansas
Risking Spread of Epidemic That Has Already Killed 7 Million Bats
GOLDEN, Colo.— Conservation groups filed an appeal today of a plan by the U.S. Forest Service to reopen caves across the agency’s Rocky Mountain region, an area where caves had previously been closed to protect bats from the spread of a deadly disease that is killing bats across the eastern United States. Just seven years after being first documented in an upstate New York cave, white-nose syndrome has spread to 22 states and five Canadian provinces. Nearly 7 million bats have perished, and in some states several bat species are now virtually wiped out. Since the Forest Service closed Rocky Mountain caves in 2010 as a precaution against the human spread of the deadly fungus, the region has remained free of the disease. Now, following pressure from cavers, the agency has apparently decided to reverse course.
“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.”
Conservation groups contend 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.”
White-nose syndrome is widely recognized by scientists 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. Researchers are engaged in a race against time to find effective treatments before the disease spreads farther and bat populations plummet. Scientists believe the pathologic organism was introduced from Europe, likely on the footwear or gear of a caver or researcher; the disease first appeared in a cave adjacent to a commercial cave that receives 200,000 tourists annually. 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.
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.
"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.
The groups filing today’s appeal are the Center for Biological Diversity, Colorado Bat Society, Wyoming Outdoor Council, Great Old Broads for Wilderness and Biodiversity Conservation Alliance.
The Center for Biological Diversity is a national, nonprofit conservation organization with more than 500,000 members and online activists dedicated to the protection of endangered species and wild places..