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For Immediate Release, Aug 1, 2012

Contact:  Mollie Matteson, (802) 318-1487

Forest Service Renews Cave Closure in Rocky Mountains to Stop Spread of Bat-killing Disease

BLM, Other Forest Service Regions in West Fail to Take Protective Action

GOLDEN, Colo.— For a third year, the Rocky Mountain Region of the U.S. Forest Service is enforcing an emergency cave closure on national forest lands to stop possible human transport of an invasive fungus that has already killed millions of bats. The renewal of the closure is good news for North American bats and provides a model for the many other regions of the Forest Service and Bureau of Land Management in the West that have not yet closed caves. 

“In just six short years, white-nose syndrome has spread across most of the eastern United States and wiped out as many as 7 million bats,” said Mollie Matteson, a bat advocate with the Center for Biological Diversity. “This cave closure is the minimum needed to try and prevent further spread of a horrible epidemic.”

The disease first appeared in upstate New York in a cave connected to a popular tourist cave. To date, white-nose syndrome has spread to 19 states and four Canadian provinces. The fungus that causes the disease has been detected on bats as far west as eastern Iowa and western Oklahoma. Bats and people are capable of transporting the fungus, which is believed to have originated in Europe. But unlike bats, humans are able to transport the fungus long distances. Biologists fear the bat malady will leapfrog into the western United States, where many more new bat species may be susceptible to the disease.

The closure issued by the Rocky Mountain region this year explicitly allows for exemptions on a case-by-case basis. Cavers willing to assist the Forest Service in conducting bat surveys and other cave conservation work may be allowed limited cave access after submitting formal requests to forest supervisors; members of the National Speleological Society and the Cave Research Foundation are among those who may be allowed access to caves in the region.

“If cavers are following the strict decontamination procedures against the fungus, and they are doing specific work to assist in furthering understanding of bats, the policy could be helpful,” said Matteson. “But if there is poor enforcement of the closure and exemptions, it could lead to abuse and increase the risk that white-nose syndrome will make a disastrous leap into the West.”

The Forest Service closed virtually all caves in the agency’s eastern and southern regions in 2009, when white-nose syndrome was spreading rapidly throughout the Northeast and beginning to appear in the southern Appalachians. Those closure orders are still in place to protect bats affected by the disease from further disturbance and to prevent the fungus from being transported out of the region.

In the western United States, an emergency cave closure has been put in place only in the Rocky Mountain Region of the Forest Service, which includes Colorado, Nebraska, Kansas, South Dakota and eastern Wyoming. On other federal lands in the West, including virtually all lands under the jurisdiction of the Bureau of Land Management, as well as the other regions of the Forest Service, most caves and other bat roosts and hibernation sites remain open to unlimited human access. The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service ended public access to all caves on its wildlife refuges in 2011, and the National Park Service has tightened public access to caves in parks.

”Cave closures are needed throughout the West,” said Matteson. “The loss of millions of bats is a terrible tragedy that has real consequences for people who depend on them to keep insect pests in check."

Scientists have estimated that bug-eating bats provide pest-control services to American agriculture worth as much as $53 billion per year.

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. It also petitioned for Endangered Species Act protection for the eastern small-footed bat and northern long-eared bat. Both species have been particularly hard hit by the disease; a decision on their protection is due in 2013. 

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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