This statement was issued by Bat Conservation International Executive Director Nina Fascione in support of the U.S. Forest Service decision on Tuesday (July 27) to close western caves.
With White-nose Syndrome threatening bats in the American West much sooner than expected, Bat Conservation International supports Tuesday’s emergency decision of the U.S. Forest Service Rocky Mountain Region to temporarily close all caves and abandoned mines on its lands in Colorado, Wyoming, South Dakota, Nebraska and Kansas. WNS has already decimated bat colonies throughout the eastern United States.
The fungus linked to this devastating wildlife disease reached Oklahoma and Missouri in May, putting western bats at imminent risk. States west of the Mississippi River had been spared the destruction of WNS, and wildlife managers had hoped the respite would last for a few more years. It did not.
White-nose Syndrome is the most severe threat ever faced by North American bats. More than 1 million bats have been killed by WNS since it was found in a single New York cave in 2006. Mortality rates at some hibernation sites have reached almost 100 percent, and species extinctions are increasingly likely. Top scientists are searching desperately for solutions, but they have found no means of curing or preventing this disease or even of slowing its disastrous spread.
The one-year closure of western caves is an effort to buy time to examine all options. In this crisis, the decision is reasonable and prudent. Simply waiting for WNS to arrive before taking decisive action is far too risky. BCI expects the Forest Service to work with all relevant partners, including cavers, to identify caves and abandoned mines that can be reopened safely and to ensure that caves harboring bats are completely protected. We urge all caving enthusiasts to respect these closures to help delay the introduction of WNS into these new areas.
Most scientists agree that the primary means of spreading White-nose Syndrome is from bat to bat, especially since many species migrate over long distances. But scientists also cite strong, if circumstantial, evidence for the unintentional spread of the WNS-associated fungus from cave to cave by humans. The Forest Service notes that spores of the fungus have been found on caving gear. The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service recommends very specific procedures for decontaminating gear and clothing after visiting caves. BCI employs these procedures throughout the country and urges everyone entering caves to do so.
White-nose Syndrome or the fungus associated with it has invaded 14 U.S. states and two Canadian provinces so far and has attacked nine bat species, including endangered Indiana and gray bats. All 25 hibernating bat species, more than half the 46 U.S. species, are clearly at risk from WNS. Its potential impact on non-hibernating species is unknown.
Bats play essential roles in maintaining healthy ecosystems and pay dividends to agriculture. On their nightly hunting forays, they eat enormous amounts of insects, including many pests that damage crops and forests. The loss of these bats will cause irreparable harm to our environment.
We at Bat Conservation International understand that this decision will inconvenience many users of these caves and mines, including recreational cavers. But the stakes are so high, with invaluable species at such grave risk, that an abundance of caution is necessary. We know this was a difficult choice for the U.S. Forest Service, but it was the correct one.