Caves closed because of fungus

The U.S. Forest Service has declared thousands of caves and abandoned mines in Colorado and nearby states off-limits to the public for a year in an effort to slow the spread of a fungus that is deadly to bats.

The closure began Tuesday. It applies to national forests in the agency’s Region 2, which includes Colorado, South Dakota, Wyoming, Kansas and Nebraska.

The closures are the first by the Forest Service in the western United States because of white nose syndrome.

The fungus has spread as far west as Oklahoma. It has a 90 to 100 percent fatality rate in bats, disturbing them during hibernation, and has killed more than a million bats in the East.

While the caves are closed, Forest Service officials hope to more closely study the problem and determine whether different approaches such as more targeted closures of specific caves would be adequate.

“We thought it was the best course of action that we could take, given the information that we have available today,” deputy regional forester Tony Dixon said Tuesday in a conference call with reporters.

Some members of the caving community tried to head off a blanket closure, fearing it would alienate cavers, whom the Forest Service considers important to helping educate the public about the importance of abiding by the closure.

The closure particularly affects White River National Forest in western Colorado, home to numerous caves including such popular ones as Fulford Cave in Eagle County. The closure also pertains to more than 30,000 abandoned mines, 23,000 of them in Colorado.

It doesn’t apply to privately owned commercial caves, such as those near Glenwood Springs and Manitou Springs.

The closure also includes an exception for South Dakota’s Wonderland Cave, the only commercial cave on forest land in Region 2.

There also will be exceptions for Forest Service administrative reasons, people operating under the 1872 Mining Law, scientific research and possibly for commercially guided cave visits that follow required protocols for preventing the spread of the fungus.

Violating the closure is punishable by a fine of up to $5,000 per individual and $10,000 per organization, and as many as six months in prison. However, Dixon said the goal isn’t to be punitive. Rather than relying on a heavy law enforcement presence, the Forest Service plans to focus on use of gates at cave entrances, signs and public education to try to achieve compliance.


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