Caves in national forests closed to protect bats
by Anna Oakes
Under the closure order, which took effect May 21, all caves and abandoned mines on national forests and units in 13 Southern states from Oklahoma to Virginia and Florida will remain closed unless posted open. All uses are prohibited except organized rescue efforts and other actions specifically authorized by the agency.
The national forests closest to Watauga County include the Pisgah National Forest, which extends south from Blowing Rock, and the Cherokee National Forest, which lines the east Tennessee border.
More than 5.5 million bats have died as a result of white-nose syndrome in the eastern United States and Canada, including almost 25,000 endangered Indiana bats, according to a statement from the USDA.
White-nose syndrome is a white fungus that appears on the faces, ears, wings and feet of hibernating bats. The disease causes bats to come out of hibernation severely underweight, often starving before the insects on which they feed emerge in the spring, the USDA said.
“Once a colony is infected, it spreads rapidly and has the possibility of killing over 90 percent of bats within the cave in just two years,” the agency said.
Scientists believe the disease can be unknowingly transferred from one cave or mine to another on the footwear and gear of humans. Infected caves and mines may not show obvious signs of its evidence, the USDA noted.
Education, decontamination of caving gear and cave closures appear to have slowed the southern and western spread of the syndrome.
“The winter of 2010-11 was the first winter since the discovery of WNS where there were no long-distance jumps in the distribution of WNS,” said the agency.
“Staying out of caves and mines is the one thing we can do right now to slow the further spread of the fungus,” said Dennis Krusac, Forest Service endangered species biologist for the Southern Region, in the USDA release. “We will enforce this closure order in hopes of protecting some of the largest bat populations in the United States.”
Stevin Westcott, public affairs officer for the Forest Service Southern Region, said cave closures would apply to commercial outfitters.
Grant Seldomridge of River and Earth Adventures, a Boone-based caving outfitter, said the closure order will not affect River and Earth because the outfitter conducts caving excursions at a privately-owned cave.
“I have been observing the white-nose (syndrome) for several years now,” Seldomridge said, “and it seems to be getting better. The bat population looks healthy in the cave we visit.”
According to the USDA, many national forests in the Southern Region are home to several species of bats, included the federally endangered Indiana bat, Virginia big-eared bat, gray bat and Ozark big-eared bats. Bats help control insect and pest populations.
For more information about the Southern Region, visit http://www.fs.fed.us/r8.