Holy Fungus: White-nose syndrome threatens bats

Published 12:34 am Saturday, May 23, 2009

The federal government has closed caves and old mines on U.S. Forest Service land in 13 states in an effort to control the spread of white-nose syndrome, a bat disease that is spread through a fungus.

A year-long emergency order issued Thursday covers 800 caves and mines from Oklahoma to Virginia to Florida. Among caves supervised by the U.S. Forest Service in Arkansas, only the Blanchard Springs Cavern near Mountain View is open.

Blanchard Springs is managed by the Forest Service, which offers large and small groups and individuals guided tours for a fee.

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White-nose syndrome has been detected in caves in the Northeast since 2006. The fungus appears as white dots on bats’ noses and appears to wake bats from hibernation before there are enough insects to keep them from starving.

The closure will give scientists time to study how the fungus spreads from cave to cave.

A few weeks ago, the government ordered caves from Minnesota to Maine closed, and the order closing caves in states to the south was expected to follow.

Tracy Farley, a Russellville-based spokesman for the Ozark-St. Francis National Forest, said she hopes the closure gets support from cavers.

Anyone caught trespassing a closed cave could be fined, Farley said. Fine amounts vary, based on potential damage caused by the violator.

The Forest Service has been getting in touch with spelunking groups to let them know about the ban.

“Regular cavers can help us spread the word to abide by the closure,” she said. “The cavers tend to go where the best-known caves are, and that could spread it. We don’t want to impact the bat population.”

Scientists have estimated that about 500,000 Northeastern bats have died over the past three years. The fungus could work its way to Arkansas within a couple of years.

“We are working to stop the uncontrolled spread of white-nose syndrome among bat species,” regional forester Liz Agpaoa said in a written statement announcing the closure. “The closures will allow scientists and land managers time to work together and study the fungus, learn how it spreads and how best to address it.”

Caves and mines within Arkansas state parks, including the popular Devil’s Den near Winslow, have remained open but officials say that status could change.