The U.S. Forest Service Northern Region may close all caves in its territory starting May 1 in response to a growing disease threat to hibernating bats.

But local cavers contend the move is unwarranted in the Rocky Mountains, where bat populations aren't showing signs of White Nose Syndrome.

"It appears they're doing this under an emergency plan that allows them not to take public comments," said Mike McEachern, president of the Northern Rocky Mountain Grotto cavers' association. "That's not the correct way to proceed. It was justifiable in the East when the outbreaks were occurring, but out here they've now had six years to learn about this."

Forest Service Region 1 spokesman Brandan Schulze said Regional Forester Leslie Weldon started considering the closure move last fall when the national agency issued cave equipment decontamination orders for all caves under its jurisdiction. But the onset of winter and the end of access to most backcountry caves delayed a more extensive decision, he said.

"If we were to lose our bat populations to the extent we're losing them out east, it would be devastating," Schulze said. "White Nose Syndrome is a big concern, especially as we move into spring; the snow melts and more access to caves opens up."

White Nose Syndrome is a fungus-borne disease that causes white residue to grow on hibernating bats, killing them. More than a million bats have died in the East and Southeast since it first appeared in 2006. Whole colonies are typically destroyed within two or three years of first infection.

The Northern Region national forests are home to 16 species of bats, including a dozen that hibernate (and are most susceptible to White Nose Syndrome) and six that are on the agency's sensitive species watch list.

"When the problem first emerged, it was kind of consolidated in the New York area," Schulze said. "It was a small spread. Then it wasn't until just last year it started jumping huge distances, across the Appalachian Mountain range and over to Missouri and Oklahoma. If it's just being transmitted bat to bat, how is it reaching across these big distances? Is it possible that people could be transmitting it?"

A lot of research is due to bear fruit this spring and summer, with much of it debuting at a national White Nose Syndrome symposium in May. The National Speleological Society's annual meeting in Colorado in June is also expected to attract a lot of new findings as well.

On April 8, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service announced $200,000 in grant funding for state wildlife agencies to do work on White Nose Syndrome.

Cavers like McEachern contend bats here also live in much smaller concentrations than those on the East Coast, making them less susceptible to major outbreaks. Cavers have also embraced the decontamination protocols to ensure they don't contribute to the spread, he said.

Schulze said rules for the possible closures are still being discussed. Among the questions are whether to allow researchers, archaeologists and educational programs to continue using caves with some kind of permit system, and what kinds of caves to close.

The Forest Service's definition of a cave includes most sheltered overhangs, while the National Cave Preservation Act refers to a more detailed system of passages or chambers.

Anyone interested in commenting on the possible cave closures can contact Forest Service Region 1 threatened and endangered species program leader Kristi Swisher at (406) 329-3558 or at kswisher@fs.fed.us.

Reporter Rob Chaney can be reached at 523-5382 or at rchaney@missoulian.com.

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