As Deadly Bat Disease Inches West, U.S. Forest Service Weighs Options on Colorado Cave Closures

Apr 17, 2012

The U.S. Forest Service says it’s weighing options when it comes to renewing a closure of caves and abandoned mines in Colorado and four other states. The news comes as one environmental group is calling for even more closures in the West to prevent the spread of White Nose Syndrome, which has killed millions of bats on the East Coast.

When the U.S. Forest Service Rocky Mountain region closures took effect in 2010, the fungus connected to the deadly bat disease had spread as far west as Oklahoma. Almost two years later there has been no trace of it in Colorado.

But with the ban set to expire this summer, the U.S. Forest Service is reevaluating its plan. Spokesman Steve Segin says research by Forest Service scientists will play a key part in the decision making process.

“As they’re gathering the data this spring—coming out of hibernation studies—and fully evaluating their options, we’re going to try to make an informed decision this July that will protect the resource and bats from White Nose Syndrome,” he says.

Already this spring the syndrome has been detected for the first time in Missouri, Alabama and Delaware. Segin says that will also be a factor for the three options they are considering: continuing the ban, lifting it, or putting in place limited cave closures.

Previously when the agency enacted the restrictions scientists were concerned about the role that cavers and recreationalists might be playing in the spread of White Nose Syndrome to bats. Two years later, there’s a hope that science can pinpoint exactly how humans are involved in spreading the disease, which may lead to targeted restrictions.

Mollie Matteson, spokesperson for the Arizona-based Center for Biological Diversity, an environmental advocacy organization, says if the U.S. Forest Service chooses to go down the road of granting some access, how that message is conveyed will be important.

“There’s no indication that the situation is getting better in terms of this disease’s spread,” she says. “So if they’re going to be opening up caves in the Rocky Mountain region they will have to not redouble, but quadruple the effort in terms of education out to the public.”

Matteson’s organization is also calling for a more coordinated response between federal agencies when it comes to combating the deadly bat disease. For example, while the Forest Service currently has restrictions, the Bureau of Land Management in Colorado does not.

Meantime, U.S. Forest Service spokesperson Steve Segin says there is collaboration between agencies—and outside groups—when it comes to scientific research.

“Our biologists are working with the organized caving community, as well as researchers throughout the country to find ways and strategies to combat White Nose Syndrome,” he says.

A final decision from the U.S. Forest Service Rocky Mountain region is expected after the current ban expires, which will be at the end of July.