More flexible management of bat caves considered

The U.S. Forest Service is considering a more flexible approach to its management of access to caves and abandoned mines as it seeks to protect bats from a deadly fungus.

The Forest Service’s Rocky Mountain Region is preparing an environmental analysis for management options for the disease known as white-nose syndrome, and is proposing what it calls an adaptive management approach.

The action comes as national forests and grasslands in Colorado, Kansas, Nebraska, and most of South Dakota and Wyoming are now in the third year of an emergency closure to human access to caves and abandoned mines to try to prevent the disease’s spread.

The fungus, which gets its name because it breaks out on bat muzzles among other parts of their bodies, is thought to kill the animals by rousing them during winter hibernation, when there are few insects to eat.

White-nose syndrome hasn’t been detected in Rocky Mountain Region states under the emergency closure, which is set to expire at the start of August 2013.

But the fungus has been found as close as Oklahoma.

It has killed an estimated 5.5 million bats.

Some cave enthusiasts have chafed at the blanket nature of the region’s closure, saying it should be more targeted, excluding, for example, caves where bats aren’t known to hibernate. Many Colorado caves can be found in Garfield County.

The closure order includes criteria for certain exceptions, and this August the Forest Service added one allowing active members of the National Speleological Society and Cave Research Foundation to do cave conservation work.

The management strategy the agency is now proposing “should be adaptable to changing situations and identify conditions where access to caves for recreational users and scientific communities may be permitted,” Stephen Lenzo, a line officer representative for forest supervisors in Colorado, South Dakota and Wyoming, said in a letter of notice to interested parties in early November.

“The proposed strategy would include a range of management activities based on the goals of minimizing the chances of human-facilitated transmission of the disease, and potential impacts of the disease, while permitting access consistent with WNS management.”

Management methods that might be considered range from access limits to seasonal restrictions, fungicidal application, decontamination requirements for cave entry, entry application and permit requirements, and inventory and monitoring.

The measures might be implemented across the region or in specific areas, and based on identified trigger points, such as when the fungus is detected within a certain distance of a cave.

A 30-day public comment period on the project ends Dec. 17. Comments may be mailed to Trey Schillie, USDA Forest Service, 740 Simms St., Golden, CO 80401; faxed to (303) 275-5134; or emailed to .(JavaScript must be enabled to view this email address).

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