For Immediate Release, July 6, 2011
Contact: Mollie Matteson, (802) 318-1487
Lawsuit Filed to Help Stop Spread of Bat-killing Disease to Colorado, West
BLM Permit for National Cave Convention in Colorado Risks Spread of Deadly White-nose Syndrome
WASHINGTON— The Center for Biological Diversity filed a lawsuit today challenging the Bureau of Land Management’s issuance of a “special recreation permit” to the National Speleological Society, which is holding its annual convention in Glenwood Springs, Colo., later this month. The permit allows the group to guide trips into two caves in northwest Colorado: Anvil Points and LaSunder. The permit was issued over the objections of Colorado Division of Wildlife officials who expressed concern about the risk of spreading white-nose syndrome, a new, highly fatal bat disease that has spread across nearly half the country and killed more than a million bats.
“The BLM is ignoring Colorado’s own state biologists and risking further spread of one of the worst wildlife diseases in modern times,” said Mollie Matteson, a conservation advocate with the Center for Biological Diversity, which has petitioned to prohibit all-but-essential human travel into bat caves to stem the spread of the disease. “North America’s bats are too important to risk spreading white-nose syndrome for purely recreational purposes. Until we know more about this deadly epidemic, people need to stay out of caves with bats.”
In an April 18, 2011, letter to the BLM, state bat biologists specifically recommended that the two caves not be “permitted for use” based on concerns about the spread of white-nose syndrome. They expressed additional concern about the BLM’s consideration of instituting only seasonal closures for caves in Colorado, stating that, “[b]ased on the current knowledge of this disease and how it persists in the environment, seasonal closures could leave priority sites vulnerable to introduction and spread of the fungus” and advising that the BLM in Colorado take an approach similar to that taken by the BLM in New Mexico, which issued year-round closures for a number of important bat caves.
“Stemming the spread of this deadly, fast-moving disease requires widespread, precautionary measures to keep it from killing bats on a larger scale,” said Matteson. “The BLM’s failure to close caves is putting bats in Colorado and the West at risk.”
It is well documented that the fungus believed to cause white-nose syndrome, aptly named Geomyces destructans, can be spread on the clothes and gear of people visiting caves. Scientists strongly suspect that the disease is a recent import from Europe, likely transported by someone who visited a cave there and then came to North America.
At a recent congressional hearing, Dr. Justin Boyles of the University of Tennessee, a bat biologist and white-nose syndrome researcher, testified that cave-closure policies for white-nose syndrome were “warranted and prudent” and that human-facilitated movement of the disease could be “disproportionately devastating” to bat populations because of the possibility of long-distance jumps into new regions, creating new disease epicenters.
Unlike the BLM, the Rocky Mountain region of the U.S. Forest Service has closed all caves and instead granted cavers attending the national convention in Colorado special access only to caves where bats were believed absent. The Forest Service also stipulated strict decontamination procedures and caving-gear restrictions to minimize risk that the fungus deadly to bats would be accidentally introduced from infected regions. State bat biologists with the Colorado Division of Wildlife agreed with Forest Service staff that the national forest caves selected for convention trips hold very few or no bats and were at low risk for disease spread.
The BLM permit finalized last week also requires decontamination and gear restrictions, but state biologists thought the sites chosen were not appropriate due to documented use by bats, including the Townsend’s big-eared bat, a Colorado species of special concern. The BLM has not instituted any other precautionary cave closures for white-nose syndrome in the state.
“White-nose syndrome has devastated bat populations in eastern North America, and western land managers have a unique opportunity to stop this disease from getting a foothold. There is no excuse for not taking the most cautious approach possible, as soon as possible,” Matteson said.
In five years, white-nose syndrome, or the fungus suspected to cause it, has spread from upstate New York to 19 states and four Canadian provinces. It kills 70 percent to 100 percent of affected bat populations. Six bat species are affected thus far, and bats from three other species have been found with the fungus on them but were not yet sick from it. Biologists now estimate that more than 1 million bats have died from the disease and fear that eventually all 25 hibernating bat species in North America could be affected.
Bats are the major predators of night-flying insects in North America, and scientists are also concerned about what their loss may mean in terms of burgeoning insect populations. A recent study published in the journal Science estimated that the value of insect-eating bats’ pest-control services to American farmers is $3.7 billion to $53 billion per year. Bats have been documented to eat significant quantities of insects that attack crops, including corn, cotton, cabbage, tomatoes, fruit trees and timber.
The Center for Biological Diversity is a national, nonprofit conservation organization with more than 320,000 members and online activists dedicated to the protection of endangered species and wild places.
To learn more about bats and white-nose syndrome, go to http://www.saveourbats.org.