Tennessee closes all public caves to protect bats in southeast

NASHVILLE, Tn (TWRA) - Caves located on land owned by the Tennessee Wildlife Resources Agency and other state lands in Tennessee will be closed for a year in an effort to prevent the spread of White Nose Syndrome (WNS) among the state's bat population.

The TWRA and state agencies agreed to close all caves on public property after receiving a request from the U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service. The Nature Conservancy has also agreed to follow the state's lead to close all caves located on Conservancy property.

The closures are effective immediately and temporarily close public access to all caves, sinkholes, tunnels and abandoned mines on state land managed by the Tennessee Wildlife Resources Agency, the Tennessee Department of Environment and Conservation and the Tennessee Department of Agriculture Division of Forestry. These lands include state parks, forests, and wildlife management areas. The closure extends through May 2010 and follows similar steps taken elsewhere in response to a U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service advisory asking for a moratorium on cave visitations in WNS-affected states and adjoining states.

State agencies will work with the Nature Conservancy, cavers and caving groups to share information and answer questions about the need for the temporary year closures.

White-nose Syndrome, or WNS, is named for a white fungus that appears on the faces, ears, wings and feet of hibernating bats. Scientists are trying to determine the cause of WNS and its effects. Once a colony is affected, the fungus spreads rapidly and has killed at least 95 percent of bats at one hibernation site in just two years. Other monitored bat colonies affected by WNS are experiencing similar large fatalities. There have been no reported human illnesses attributed to WNS and there is currently no evidence to suggest that WNS is harmful to humans or other organisms.

"Bats provide a tremendous public service in terms of pest control. If we loose 500,000 bats, we'll loose the benefits from that service and millions of pounds of insects will still be flying around our neighborhoods, agricultural fields and forests," said Richard Kirk, Non-game and Endangered Species Coordinator for the TWRA.

Scientists believe WNS is spread bat-to-bat as they cluster in caves and mines, and it may be unknowingly transferred from one cave or mine to another on the footwear, clothing and gear of humans visiting caves. Infected caves and mines may not show obvious signs of its presence.

WNS was first recorded in 2006 in a cave near Albany, N.Y. and within two years had spread to Connecticut, Massachusetts and Vermont. WNS outbreaks were confirmed this past winter in nine states, including new outbreaks in Virginia and West Virginia.  Tennessee officials want to take action to further prevent the spread of the syndrome and protect Tennessee's bat populations.

Nearly 500,000 bats are known to have died as a result of WNS in the New England and Mid-Atlantic states, including almost 25,000 endangered Indiana bats. The syndrome has already affected caves in Virginia, and Tennessee state officials feel it is only a matter of time before occurrences of WNS will be found here.

The U.S. Forest Service has closed thousands of caves and former mines in national forests in 33 states in an effort to control the fungus. Other public closures in Tennessee include the Cherokee National Forest and the Great Smoky Mountains National Park.

Biologists are concerned that WNS could devastate populations of endangered Indiana and gray bats. Bats play a key role in keeping insects such as agricultural pests, mosquitoes and forest pests under control. Between April and October, they usually eat their body weight in bugs per night.

"Temporarily staying out of caves and mines is the one thing we can do right now to slow the transmission of White Nose Syndrome. With cooperation and some luck, this will give us the time we need to develop an effective response strategy to slow the further spread of the WNS," said Cory Holliday, Cave and Karst Manager for the Nature Conservancy.

The disease causes bats to use up their fat reserves rapidly during hibernation. This causes the bats to fly out of caves during the winter in a desperate attempt to find food, but since the insects they eat are also seasonally dormant, the bats soon die of starvation.

This summer, staff from the Nature Conservancy, the Tennessee Wildlife Resources Agency, the U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service, and the Arnold Air Force Base will be conducting extensive out-flight counts of the state's bat populations to establish the current populations as well as determine the overall health of Tennessee's bats. Scientists and researchers throughout the eastern U.S. are modifying their work to avoid cave entry and the handling of bats. Scientists are hopeful that the cave closures along with WNS public awareness will give them time to discover the cause of WNS and how to limit its transmission.