Forest Service limit on cave visits is correct, cautious approach
Glenwood Springs, CO Colorado
White nose syndrome is a mysterious fungal infection that has killed more than 1 million bats in Eastern and Midwestern states and Canadian provinces. It spreads most readily in the caves and abandoned mines where bats roost in the winter.
While the disease has not yet been detected in Colorado, caves and old mines on national forest land in Colorado have been closed since last summer to prevent human introduction of disease.
Meanwhile, the National Speleological Society is planning its annual convention in Glenwood Springs in July, and the caving convention has sought special permission from the Forest Service and Bureau of Land Management to access the many caves nearby.
So why should federal land managers worry about a disease affecting little, furry, flying mammals in eastern states?
Bats are essential to maintaining balance in the insect world, eating agricultural pests, along with serving as pollinators and seed-dispersers.
Next time you slap a mosquito, remember that more than two-thirds of the world’s bat species hunt insects, and they have healthy appetites. According to Bat Conservation International, a single little brown bat can eat up to 1,000 mosquito-sized insects in a single hour, while a pregnant or nursing mama bat can eat the equivalent of her entire body weight in insects each night.
White nose syndrome has wiped out scores of roosting bat colonies since it was discovered in 2006, and it claims victims in new states every year as it spreads west and south.
To its credit, the Forest Service has issued the Speleological Society a limited approval for access to caves that are small and shallow, while keeping off limits the long-chambered caves favored by bats.
Cave visits will be limited to groups of eight, and all those who enter caves must undergo extensive decontamination procedures to avoid introducing the fungus. In particular, cavers from states where white nose syndrome has been documented must leave their clothing and gear at home, and will be able to use replacement gear and clothing here.
We wouldn’t expect decontamination to be a problem. Serious cave explorers are a meticulous and protective bunch and are well aware of the devastating spread of white nose syndrome.
The limitation on which caves can be visited, however, is likely to be disappointing, especially for those coming from states with infected bat populations. But the limited access is the safest approach to a deadly disease that could jump into Colorado any time.
It would be a tragic turn indeed if a convention of dedicated cave explorers introduced the syndrome to Colorado’s disease-free caverns.
The Bureau of Land Management has yet to issue its response to a special use permit request from the Speleological Society. We urge BLM officials to take the same cautious approach adopted by the Forest Service.
Our local bat colonies are far too valuable a part of the ecosystem to risk the introduction of white nose syndrome.
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