Forest Service may end cave closure imposed as protection for bats

The U.S. Forest Service is considering lifting a two-year, blanket closure of caves and abandoned mines in Colorado and several other states after having imposed it in an effort to protect bats from a deadly fungal outbreak.

“We definitely have been considering various options,” said Nancy Warren, regional endangered-species-program leader for the Forest Service’s Region 2.

The region includes Colorado, South Dakota, Wyoming, Kansas and Nebraska. In July 2010, the Forest Service closed most access to caves and abandoned mines in Region 2 in an effort to prevent the spread of white-nose syndrome, which killed millions of bats in the East.

The agency first implemented a one-year emergency closure out of concern that cavers might help introduce the fungus out West. The fungus recently was discovered in Oklahoma, although there was no indication of infected bats there.

The closure was extended for another year last summer.

This winter, bats with white-nose syndrome were found in Missouri, in the first such confirmed cases west of the Mississippi River.

Richard Rhinehart, editor of Rocky Mountain Caving and a volunteer with the Colorado Cave Survey cavers group, said cavers have become restless regarding the closure order. When it was first imposed, he said, little was known scientifically about the fungus and its spread.

“Now there’s been a couple of years that have gone by, and there has been a lot more work done scientifically in those two years,” he said.

The fungus is thought to rouse bats during hibernation, weakening them. Rhinehart said questions are arising about whether smaller hibernation colonies out West and the region’s more arid conditions might be inhibiting the spread of the fungus.

Warren said the Forest Service is collecting data on humidity and temperature in Region 2 caves and considering the colony size question. It is trying to determine specific risk areas within the region, which may affect its future approach to managing caves and mines.

The Bureau of Land Management opted against blanket cave or mine closures in Colorado, deciding instead to close individual sites where warranted. It has yet to close any.

On Wednesday, the nonprofit Center for Biological Diversity urged the White House to direct federal agencies to enact consistent restrictions on human access to caves to protect the bats.

“This crisis is deepening by the day, and it’s time for the highest reaches of government to take action,” Mollie Matteson, conservation director for the center, said in a news release.

Tina Jackson, species-conservation coordinator for Colorado Parks and Wildlife, said the longer it takes white-nose syndrome to reach the state, the more time there is to do research and determine the best protective measures.

“We’re going to keep monitoring for it and hopefully be ahead of the game if it ever shows up in the state,” she said.


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