Conservation groups filed an appeal this week over U.S. Forest Service (FS) plans to reopen caves in the Rocky Mountain region where they have been closed in an attempt to stop the spread of white-nose syndrome.
Since it was first documented in New York in 2006, the disease has since spread to 22 states and five Canadian provinces. It’s been called a wildlife crisis in the U.S. and has left almost seven million bats dead in its wake, while leaving some species facing the risk of extinction. At least three species are expected to get protection under the Endangered Species Act this year.
It’s believed that the fungus, which thrives in the cold, has multiple physiological effects on bats and disrupts hibernation, causing bats to wake up and use the fat reserves they need to survive through the winter. Some bats leave hibernation too soon and either freeze or starve to death.
It’s also believed that humans may be responsible for helping this disease spread by transferring it between caves via contaminated clothes and gear.
In 2010, the FS closed caves in the Rocky Mountains in an attempt to stop the fungus from spreading there, but according to the Center for Biological Diversity, pressure from cavers has caused it to change course and consider opening caves in Colorado, Wyoming, South Dakota and Kansas.
“Rather than opening up Rocky Mountain caves under pressure from a narrow interest group, the Forest Service should maintain the strongest protections possible for bats in the face of this unprecedented wildlife epidemic,” said Mollie Matteson, a bat specialist with the Center for Biological Diversity. “The agency’s own analysis shows that opening caves will increase the risk of spread of this devastating disease, yet the agency is now doing just that ― it makes no sense.”
You don’t even particularly need to be a fan of bats to appreciate their role in the ecosystem and the environmental services they provide. A study published in the journal Science concluded that the economic value of bats alone is roughly $22.9 billion per year and could be as high as $53 billion annually.
Clearly we need bats more than anyone needs to go spelunking. If you’re wondering whether economic gains from cavers and outdoor recreation played a part here, the answer is yes and no. The FS used that as an argument to open caves, but didn’t bother doing an analysis of their economic value overall or to the states in question, or consider the amount of pesticides we can avoid using because of bats.
“Bats consume tons of agricultural pests and other insects, thereby providing critical ecological services for human health and stable ecosystem function that far outweigh the purely recreational needs of people at this time,” said Rick Adams, a bat biologist and president of the Colorado Bat Society. “In fact, with the loss of bats that provide the guano to fuel underground ecosystems, the unique biological values of caves will be lost in our lifetime.”
Scientists are already scrambling to learn more about this disease with limited funding and not much hope of getting more for research. Without a cure or way to contain this deadly fungus, staying out of caves is one of the easiest things we can do to help protect bats.
Please sign and share the petition asking the Forest Service to help protect bats, instead of adding to the risks they already face.
Photo credit: USFWS/Southeast