Forests to ease restrictions protecting bats in caves

National forests in Colorado and three other states have decided to proceed with loosening restrictions on visits to caves and abandoned mines while continuing to try to protect bats from a deadly fungal disease.

Supervisors of forests and grasslands in the U.S. Forest Service Region 2, which also includes Kansas, South Dakota and Wyoming, have decided to use what the agency is calling an adaptive management strategy for combating the spread of white-nose syndrome. In addition, the Colorado office of the Bureau of Land Management last week said it also will consider such an approach and is accepting public comments.

Under the Forest Service action, caves generally would be open within a ranger district unless the disease or the fungus that causes it is confirmed within 250 miles.

In those cases, caves in the district would be closed, but with the option of keeping targeted caves open. If the disease becomes endemic or is thought to have minimal or no effect on bats, all limits on cave visits would be lifted.

The same measures apply to mines.

The new approach by the Forest Service would take effect in July, although the local decisions first can be challenged by administrative appeals. Last Aug. 1, Region 2 entered the third year of an emergency closure of caves and abandoned mines, with certain exceptions. A number of those caves are in Garfield County.

By contrast, the BLM up to now has left caves under its management open in the state, with the ability to consider targeted closures as warranted.

The sweeping cave closures to date by the Forest Service have met with criticism from many caving enthusiasts. However, its adaptive-management proposal resulted in about 5,740 form emails asking for access restrictions to protect bats, out of nearly 6,000 comments altogether.

In a news release, Mollie Matteson, a bat specialist for the Center for Biological Diversity, called the Forest Service action “a terrible blow to efforts to forestall the spread of this wildlife epidemic to the West. It’s extremely short-sighted, giving priority to the recreational interests of a small group of people over the survival of western bats.”

White-nose syndrome has killed millions of bats in the eastern United States. The fungus has spread as far west as Oklahoma.

In its environmental assessment, the Forest Service said its “strategy recognizes the need for a consistent approach, while providing flexibility to accommodate unique circumstances and local conditions.”


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