The USDA Forest Service issued an order on May 21 closing all caves and abandoned mines on FS property — unless specifically posted as open — in its Southeastern Region 8. The states affected include Virginia, North Carolina, South Carolina, Georgia, Florida, Kentucky, Tennessee, Alabama, Mississippi, Arkansas, Louisiana, Oklahoma and Texas.
The closures are an effort to combat the spread of white-nose syndrome (WNS.) WNS appears to be caused by a newly described fungus, Geomyces destructans. The fungus grows around the muzzle, ears and wing membranes of infected bats.
WNS was first reported from New York State during the winter of 2006-2007. WNS is highly contagious and has spread to at least eight other states, moving as far south as Virginia.
WNS is incredibly lethal with some hibernacula revealing mortality rates above 90 percent. It is estimated to date that somewhere between one-half million and one million bats have succumbed to WNS including 25,000 endangered Indiana bats.
To date, six species of bats — Indiana bat, little brown bat, big brown bat, northern long-eared bat, small-footed bat and eastern pipistrelle — are known to be susceptible to WNS. WNS is clearly highly contagious among bats but the rapid spread of the disease (more than 450 miles last year) leads scientists to question whether or not the disease can be spread by cavers visiting different sites across the country.
This question of human vectors is what has led agencies like the Forest Service and Fish & Wildlife and organizations like The Nature Conservancy and Southeastern Cave Conservancy across the country, to close access to caves in states where WNS has been detected plus adjoining states.
The Nature Conservancy in North Carolina has closed Bat Cave and Rumbling Bald Cave in Rutherford County as a precaution against the spread of WNS. Of course the Forest Service announcement covers all caves in the Nantahala and/or Pisgah National Forests. The Great Smoky Mountains National Park has also ordered closure of all its caves.
In an effort to educate the public about WNS, The Nature Conservancy will lead guided hikes at its Bat Cave Preserve on Wednesdays and Saturdays through Aug. 12. Hikers will not be allowed inside the cave but will be able to see the entrance from the trail. For information regarding these hikes you can email Mtns_Volunteers@tnc.org or cal 828.350.1431 option 4.
One can find a little carping regarding cave closures across various caving/spelunking forums but the local, regional and national caving/spelunking organizations and the overwhelming majority of their members are supportive of whatever measures are needed to halt this terrible disease. After all there is a kindred spirit between these furry cave dwellers and the light-dependant bipeds that are drawn to their subterranean haunts.