Three weeks ago (Naturalist’s Corner 3/11) I wrote about a mysterious malady dubbed White Nose Syndrome (WNS) that has been decimating bat populations at various hibernacula across the Northeast and spreading south. Last week (3/26) the U.S, Fish & Wildlife Service called for a voluntary moratorium on caving in states with documented incidents of WNS and in adjacent states.

The fact that WNS has been reported from sites considerable distances from known WNS-hibernacula has U.S. Fish & Wildlife concerned that humans may be aiding the spread of the disease. “We suspect that white-nose syndrome may be transmitted by humans inadvertently carrying WNS from cave to cave where bats hibernate,” said Fish & Wildlife northeast regional director, Marvin Moriarty.

Fish & Wildlife is asking spelunkers to suspend all caving activities in WNS-affected states and adjacent states. The Service also asks that cavers not use clothing and/or gear that have been used in WNS-affected states in any caves even if the equipment and clothing have been disinfected using Fish & Wildlife’s protocols. The advisory states, “Although we have confidence in the current protocols for decontamination, there is no way to guarantee efficacy for all equipment in all circumstances, and they may not adequately address needs for technical or vertical gear.”

Fish & Wildlife and other agencies will also re-evaluate all scientific activities taking place in hibernacula to try and insure they are not possibly aiding the spread of WNS.

The nine states where WNS has been documented to date are New York, Pennsylvania, Connecticut, Massachusetts, New Hampshire, New Jersey, Vermont, Virginia and West Virginia. At least 60 hibernacula are known to be infected and the service estimates that more than 400,000 bats, including 25,000 endangered Indiana bats have succumbed to WNS. Some hibernacula have experienced mortality rates as high as 97 percent.

The Service has closed four caves at Wheeler National Wildlife Refuge, near Decatur Ala. And may close more on Service property in accordance with advisory guidelines. Fish & Wildlife only has authority to close caves on property it owns but noted in its advisory, “We expect other government agencies, organizations or private landowners will close caves to help prevent or slow down the spread of WNS.”

Northeast Fish & Wildlife director, Moriarty noted, “We understand that following these recommendations will inconvenience recreational cavers, but we believe this is the most responsible course of action as we face this unknown threat to bats, which play an important role in our world.”

Fish & Wildlife is hoping for the same kind of cooperation and understanding from cavers that rock climbers have shown regarding Peregrine Falcon closures.

The four recommendations the Service has issued are:

1. A voluntary moratorium on caving in states with confirmed WNS and all adjoining states;

2. Nationally, in states not WNS-affected or adjoining states, use clothing and gear that has never been in caves in WNS-affected or adjoining states;

3. State and federal conservation agencies should evaluate scientific activities for their potential to spread WNS; and

4. Nationally, researchers should use clothing and gear that has never been in caves in a WNS-affected or adjoining state.

We intend to review the cave advisory frequently – at least quarterly.