Cave closure order imminent
Despite hopes that recent media coverage may have helped change their minds, regional U.S. Forest Service officials still appear poised to close all caves on national forests in Colorado and nearby states for a year to try to protect bats threatened by a fungus, a cave enthusiast says.
Forest Service Region 2, which includes Colorado, had been expected to announce its plans last week. An agency biologist and Richard Rhinehart, editor of Rocky Mountain Caving, had said a widespread closure order was anticipated. However, the Forest Service delayed its announcement, and Rhinehart had thought it might be reconsidering its plans, possibly in light of reports of the anticipated closure order by The Daily Sentinel and KUSA-TV in Denver.
But Rhinehart said he was part of a conference call Friday in which a regional forestry official said a blanket cave-closure order was highly likely in the next week or so.
The action is being considered to prevent the spread of white nose syndrome to caves in Colorado. It’s caused by a fungus that has spread from the East to as far west as Oklahoma. It has a high fatality rate for bats, killing them by disturbing and rousing them during hibernation and leaving them in a weakened state.
Forest Service Region 2 comprises Colorado, Wyoming, South Dakota, Kansas and Nebraska. Most of Colorado’s caves are in the White River National Forest.
Janelle Smith, a regional Forest Service spokeswoman, said the agency “definitely” still is considering a closure.
“We just paused to coordinate more closely with some of our sister agencies and we have been talking with the folks in the caving community,” she said.
She said the Bureau of Land Management and the Fish and Wildlife Service are among agencies being consulted.
The closure would affect only caves on national forests. The owner of Glenwood Caverns and Historic Fairy Caves, a commercial site near Glenwood Springs, has said the site would not be included in the closure order but is working with the Forest Service on the issue. The caves have little or no bat population.
Cave of the Winds, a commercial cave near Manitou Springs, also said it wouldn’t be affected. However, operations manager Jeremy Stiles worries that the closure might be premature and overly broad. He questions closing caves without bats, and whether cavers help spread the fungus. Nevertheless, he said responsible cavers are decontaminating cave clothing and taking other preventive steps to protect bats.
Rhinehart fears that a blanket rather than more targeted closure would alienate cavers who otherwise could help the Forest Service by educating the public about closures, reporting bat and fungus sightings and sharing information with authorities about little-known cave locations.
Smith said the Forest Service feels an urgency to act because the fungus has spread so close to Colorado. She said the agency is considering issues raised by the caving community and recognizes that it plays an important role in addressing the issue.
“Anything that we do, the caving community, recreational caves and folks like Richard Rhinehart are really key to the success in helping us get the word out and prevent the spread as much as we can,” she said.
Rhinehart said the Forest Service also is considering a closure order for Region 3, Arizona and New Mexico. He said the BLM has made no decisions on closures. He said it may roll out a closure plan — possibly a targeted one — later this year, perhaps first in New Mexico.
The BLM manages numerous caves in the Grand Junction, De Beque and Montrose region and the Glenwood Springs and Cañon City areas, Rhinehart said.