DURANGO The U.S. Forest Service has placed all caves and abandoned mines in five states, including Colorado, off-limits to public exploration as a way to slow the potential spread of a disease that has killed millions of bats.
A lot of agencies have taken this seriously, Mark Ball, wildlife program leader at the San Juan Public Lands Center in Durango, said Tuesday. We stand to lose a lot.
Ball was referring to white-nose syndrome, a fungus identified after bats hibernating in a cave in New York state were found with a white substance on their muzzle in February 2006.
Since then, the syndrome has killed more than 1 million bats in the Northeast and mid-Atlantic states and been found as far west as Oklahoma.
A Science magazine article says researchers fear that the little brown-nosed bat may be extinct in 16 years if the present mortality rate goes unchecked.
Bats, which are found worldwide, are valued for their consumption of insects that carry diseases that ravage crops and human health.
The fungus hasnt been found in Colorado, but the state division of wildlife is inspecting bat hibernation sites as a precaution.
We know we dont know where all bats are, Tina Jackson, a species conservation coordinator with the division of wildlife in Denver, said March 1. So were asking people to notify us if they have bats on their property or if theyve seen unusual bat behavior or have found recently killed bats.
Colorado hosts at least 18 species of bats, 13 of which are believed to winter in the state, according to the division of wildlife. Bats that migrate are believed to be free of the syndrome.
A white muzzle, ears or wings is one symptom of white-nose syndrome. Behavior such as moving to the entrance of a cave or flying outside during the day also are symptoms. Dead bats may be found inside and outside caves.
By placing abandoned mines and caves off-limits for a year, the forest service hopes to short-circuit any human role in spreading the fungus, Ball said.
The large geographical leap of the fungus points to a possible human role in the spread of the fungus, Ball said. People who explore caves and abandoned mines could carry the fungus on their clothes or equipment.
The idea is to give science enough time to come up with a way to deal with (white-nose syndrome), Ball said. The restriction on entering caves or abandoned mines doesnt apply to scientists studying the phenomenon.
Affected by the one-year closure of potential bat hibernating spots is the Forest Services Region 2 Colorado, Nebraska, Kansas, Wyoming and South Dakota. About 30,000 abandoned mines and hundreds of caves in the region are affected by the restriction.
A U.S. Bureau of Land Management website lists about 3,200 abandoned mines in Colorado. Roosts in cool, moist caves and mines are the highest risk for white-nose syndrome.
Ball said the infected bats in Oklahoma are about 200 miles from the closest forest service unit in Colorado.
Although Oklahoma is the known frontier for the white-nose fungus, biologists at Kofa National Wildlife Refuge near Yuma, Ariz., are taking no chances.
The 665,000-acre refuge, of which 516,000 acres are federally designated wilderness, is following U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service guidelines, biologist Brenda Zaun said Tuesday.
All mines are closed to the public, bat researchers must follow decontamination procedures in their work, and a public-education program aims at informing people of the consequences of white-nose syndrome.
The little brown bat is found nearly coast-to-coast in the United States. Little brown, tri-colored, northern long-eared, big brown, small-footed and Indiana bats have died from white-nose syndrome, according to the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service.