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For Immediate Release, June 26, 2013

Contact: Mollie Matteson, (802) 318-1487

Forest Service Will Reopen Caves, Increase Risk That Deadly Bat Epidemic Will Spread to
Rocky Mountains, U.S. West

Agency Denies Appeal by Conservation Groups; White-nose Syndrome Has Already Killed 7 Million Bats

GOLDEN, Colo.— The U.S. Forest Service today denied an appeal by bat conservationists and decided to move forward with a plan to reopen national forest caves in the Rocky Mountains to recreationists. The decision follows a three-year period of precautionary cave closures to reduce the risk of humans transporting a devastating bat disease into the Rocky Mountain region. The conservation groups wanted the agency to prioritize the protection of insect-eating bats and minimize the chance that people will bring in white-nose syndrome — a newly emergent, powerfully lethal bat disease that has already killed nearly 7 million bats in North America. The Forest Service’s own analysis showed that the current closure policy, rather than the plan to reopen the caves, would do the most to reduce potential harms to bats.

“The first tragedy of white-nose syndrome is the disease itself,” said Mollie Matteson, a bat specialist with the Center for Biological Diversity. “The second tragedy is the failure of our government agencies, whose mission is to protect our public lands and wildlife, to do their very best to safeguard the future of these creatures. Thirty years from now, will anyone feel good that caving went on more or less as usual, but the bats that lived in our caves went extinct?”

White-nose syndrome first showed up in a commercial cave in upstate New York in 2006. It has since spread to 22 states and five Canadian provinces and is suspected in an additional two states, including Oklahoma, the farthest west record of the fungus that causes the disease. Nearly 7 million bats are estimated to have died so far. Seven species are known to be susceptible to the disease, including the federally endangered Indiana bat and the gray bat. A recent study of the Indiana bat predicted the species will disappear across most of its range within a decade.

“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, professor at the University of Northern Colorado 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.”

Scientists have documented the economic value of bug-consuming bats to the agriculture sector. Bats save American farmers an estimated $22 billion per year in pesticides they don’t have to use to quell pest outbreaks.

In response to one of the changes requested by the conservation groups, the Forest Service will require each individual caver to obtain his or her own permit before they visit a cave. But the agency rejected mandatory year-round closures at caves used for winter hibernation, summer roosting, or fall swarming sites by bats, preferring seasonal closures instead.

The agency decision stands in opposition to the recommendations of the Colorado Division of Wildlife, Wyoming Game and Fish Department, Wyoming Chapter of the Wildlife Society, and the conservation groups who filed the appeal, among others — all of which had urged the Forest Service to close important bat sites year-round because the deadly fungus can persist for long periods in the absence of bats, remaining dormant until bats show up, at which point they can become carriers or active hosts of the disease.  

In 2010 a suspected case of white-nose syndrome showed up in a cave in western Oklahoma. At that time the Forest Service implemented a broad-based closure in Colorado, and parts of Oklahoma, Kansas, South Dakota and Wyoming.

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.

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