US Forest Service Reopens Caves Despite Risk to Bats
Despite the unabated threat of a devastating fungal disease that has already killed nearly 7 million hibernating bats, U.S. Forest Service officials released a plan today to rescind their three-year-old precautionary cave closure policy in the Rocky Mountain Region, including in Colorado and much of Wyoming and South Dakota. The new policy, described in an environmental assessment posted to the Forest Service website, reopens all caves in the region to recreational activities, nullifying an aggressive approach to containing white-nose syndrome unique among western federal land agencies.
"This decision is a terrible blow to efforts to forestall the spread of this wildlife epidemic to the West," said Mollie Matteson, a bat specialist at the Center for Biological Diversity. "It’s extremely short-sighted, giving priority to the recreational interests of a small group of people over the survival of western bats, and it ignores all the benefits insect-eating bats provide to the rest of us, including farmers who depend on bats to save them millions of dollars in additional costs by containing crop pests."
The bat malady has already spread to 22 states and five Canadian provinces since 2006, causing mortality rates of more than 95 percent in some eastern bat species. The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service is considering listing three species under the federal Endangered Species Act because of the precipitous drop in their populations due to the disease. Seven bat species are affected by white-nose syndrome so far, and more species will be put at risk if the disease moves into the western half of the country.
Biologists believe the fungal pathogen that causes white-nose syndrome was most likely introduced to the United States by a cave visitor from Europe. The fungus grows on cave bats in Europe but appears to have little effect on them. Bats themselves are the primary vector for the disease in North America, but their migratory ranges are limited. Human transport, on the other hand, could transmit fungal spores hundreds of miles beyond the leading edge of the disease zone and create a new epicenter for its spread.
Photo of two bats in a cave via Shutterstock.
Read more at Center for Biological Diversity.