To fight spread of bat disease, many caves, mines to be closed
Hikers may be locked out of hundreds of caves and 30,000 abandoned mines in the West and Midwest in a government plan to protect bat from man.
The cave closings may come within the week, said Forest Service spokeswoman Janelle Smith, and are the latest efforts to combat a disease called white nose syndrome that has devastated bat communities in 13 states and two Canadian provinces. The disease, perhaps caused by a fungus, may spread to more states as hikers and tourists inadvertently carry spores on their clothing, Smith said.
The loss of swaths of the bat population may threaten corn and soybean crops and other parts of the agriculture and timber industries, said Mollie Matteson, a conservation advocate at the Center for Biological Diversity in Tucson, Ariz. Bats help control insect pests, eating as much as twothirds of their body weight per night, said Holly Ober, assistant professor at the University of Florida in Quincy, Fla., in a 2008 Department of Wildlife Ecology and Conservation document.
“It’s a catastrophic situation for bats,” said Jeremy Coleman, a biologist with the Fish and Wildlife Service who studies white nose syndrome in Cortland, N.Y. “We don’t have any tools at our ready to treat them or to control the Bat colonies in 13 states have been devastated by white nose syndrome. The loss of bats could leave crops vulnerable to pests. spread, other than closing access to humans,” he said.
“There are just too many unknowns,” Coleman said.
The big brown bat, a species widely distributed in North America, feasts on insects that destroy corn, soybean and cotton crops, according to the report by Ober.
The fungus thought to cause the disease was first detected in New York in 2006 and may have killed more than 1 million bats, according to a May report from the Fish and Wildlife Service. The agency called the disease “the worst wildlife health crisis in memory.”
The disease only affects hibernating bat species, which account for a little over half of the 45 varieties in North America, said Matteson. So far nine species, including the big brown bat, are known to be affected. Some of them are now threatened with extinction, the May report said.
In a May news release, Austin-based Bat Conservation International said the potential impact of white nose syndrome on the local Mexican free-tail colony was still not known. “These bats share their winter and summer ranges with many hibernating species,” the group said. “Biologists fear that migrating freetails, even if they are not themselves battered by the disease, may prove to be carriers that spread the fungus.”