EAGLE, Colo. - Two Eagle County sites where bats are known to hibernate are on a Colorado Division of Wildlife list of priority sites to examine for signs of white nose syndrome.
The Colorado Division of Wildlife announced Tuesday that it's stepping up monitoring efforts of the syndrome, which kills bats and has been detected as far west as Oklahoma. The syndrome was first confirmed in the United States in 2006, in New York, but has been around in Europe for hundreds of years.
The syndrome is caused by a fungus known as geomyces destructans and is responsible for large-scale bat deaths in the eastern United States, according to the Colorado Division of Wildlife statement released Tuesday.
Last summer, the U.S. Forest Service announced that it was closing some 1,500 caves and 23,000 abandoned mines on federal lands throughout Colorado for one year in order to prevent the spread of white nose syndrome.
The closure was a preventative measure that was the result of scientific speculation that the syndrome is likely spread by humans, said Randy Hampton, spokesman for the Colorado Division of Wildlife. The syndrome is also believed to be spread from bat to bat.
Fulford Cave, southeast of Eagle, is a popular destination for cave explorers, or cavers, in Colorado. It was one of the hundreds of closed caves last year, and it has also made the new Division of Wildlife list of areas to study.
"There are dozens of bat sites and caves throughout the state that we want to keep an eye on," Hampton said.
Hampton said the study focuses on places where bat colonies are hibernating or places where there's a likelihood that bats are hibernating.
"At the present time we do not believe that white nose syndrome is in Colorado, but that's the purpose of this survey we're undertaking," he said. "We've been monitoring, but this is a much more extensive plan to begin to comprehensively look at what we're dealing with."
There are some sites in southeastern Colorado that top the priority list because of their proximity to Oklahoma, the western-most location in which the syndrome has been detected, Hampton said.
Richard Rhinehart, editor of Rocky Mountain Caving, a quarterly journal of Colorado caves, wrote last fall that since the Forest Service closure only affects caves on federal lands, that it's probably just a "a show of support for politically influential environmental groups and bat biologists rather than a meaningful policy based upon scientific fact."
The increased research will hopefully provide more insight into how to better prevent the spread of the disease, Hampton said.
While scientific speculation might point the finger at cavers as the potential cause of the spread of the disease, Hampton said the Division of Wildlife isn't playing a blame game.
"We're in this for prevention and assessment of if white nose syndrome has reached Colorado," he said. "How do we figure out if it's here and if it's not, how do we keep it from getting here?"
The mortality rate can be anywhere from 70 percent to 100 percent in infected bat populations. That kind of mortality could be devastating to local ecosystems, Hampton said.
A bat can eat thousands of mosquitoes in one night, for example, providing a tremendous control on insect populations.
"If you get that kind of loss within the ecosystem, it can change balances within the ecosystem," Hampton said.