Forest Service lifts its three-year cave closure

Scott Condon
The Aspen Times

Caves in Colorado and four other western states were reopened to spelunkers Thursday although the U.S. Forest Service kept some restrictions in place to try to prevent the spread of white-nose syndrome among bats.

All cavers on national forest lands in Colorado, Wyoming, South Dakota, Nebraska and Kansas must register before entering a cave or mine, and they must carry a signed registration while underground. Spelunkers are also required to decontaminate clothing and gear before entering and after exiting a cave. All gear and clothing that has been worn in areas where white-nose syndrome has been found is prohibited in the Rocky Mountain Region.

In addition, caves used by bats for winter hibernation will be closed from Oct. 15 to April 15 to minimize disturbance to the animals, the regional office announced Thursday.

“Our intent is to protect bat species from the westward spread of white-nose syndrome, a deadly disease that has killed 5.5 million bats since 2006,” said Steven Lenzo, a deputy forest and grasslands supervisor in Nebraska who was on the team that created the cave management plan.

The management steps replace an emergency closure approved by the Forest Service in 2010.

Conservationist Mollie Matteson said the restrictions don’t go far enough. Matteson, conservation advocate for the Center for Biological Diversity in Richmond, Vt., said the closure was the only sure-fire way to prevent the spread of the fungus that causes white-nose syndrome. “I think in time we will see the fungus in the western United States,” she said.

The Center for Biological Diversity and another conservation group filed an administrative appeal trying to prevent the new policy from being implemented. Their appeal was denied in June.

The disease that kills the bats has been found in 22 U.S. states and five Canadian provinces, Matteson said. In addition, the fungus that causes the disease has been found in three additional states, but there is no evidence it has killed bats yet in those states, she said.

The Forest Service noted that the disease hasn’t been found yet in the states that comprise the Rocky Mountain Region. There are 45 bat species in the U.S. and about 25 that hibernate, according to the Forest Service. At least seven hibernating species have been affected by white-nose syndrome. Of those, three live in the Rocky Mountain Region, so the preventative measures are needed, the agency said in a statement. The Forest Service said increased public education about white-nose syndrome is part of the prevention plan.

But Matteson said lifting the closure of caves harms the education effort. “It sends a bad message to the public on the seriousness of this,” she said.

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