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Colorado caves opened despite threat to bats

White nose The Bureau of Land Management has opened access to three caves in Colorado that state officials had recommended remain closed to prevent human spread of a deadly bat disease.

The agency placed tight restrictions on a permit for access to three caves in Glenwood Springs, Colo., that the agency said have either no use or very limited use by bats. They will be open during the National Speleological Society’s convention July 18-22.

Groups will be limited to 10 to 12 visits per cave with no more than five people per visit. An approved leader for each tour will be required to ensure the cave visitors follow the latest protocols for decontaminating their gear.

The action comes after the Colorado Division of Wildlife advised that the BLM not to open the caves because of documented bat activity inside. The convention is expected to draw cavers from around the country, including regions in the eastern and southern United States afflicted with white nose syndrome, which has been spreading steadily southwest.

“Providing convention attendees an outlet for caving under these strictly controlled conditions will help mitigate risk of introducing white-nose syndrome and encourage any visitation to these areas to occur under the oversight of an experienced local guide,” said BLM Colorado River Valley Field Manager Steve Bennett.

But decontamination protocols fall “short of providing the level of protection the state biologists think bats need,” said spokeswoman Mollie Matteson of the Center for Biological Diversity, an environmental group based in Tucson, which has petitioned to ban nonessential human travel into caves on public lands.

“The best thing for bats right now is for people to stay out of caves until scientists know more about this disease," said Matteson. "Bat biologists are saying a human-caused jump of white-nose syndrome into the western United States could be absolutely devastating, so why are some federal land managers taking the risk and leaving caves open?”

Last month, the White River National Forest allowed guided trips into 14 caves on national forest land. Caves on national forest lands in Colorado and throughout the Rocky Mountain had been off-limits since last summer.

Scientists believe that white-nose syndrome, a fungus that spreads through the nose, ears and on the wings of bats, causing the animal to end hibernation early and starve, can be transmitted by clothing and gear of cave visitors. The illness has swept across 19 states over the last five years, killing more than 1 million bats.

Federal wildlife authorities announced this week the Eastern small-footed bat and Northern long-eared bat in the Colorado region may deserve Endangered Species Act protection because of the threat from white-nose syndrome and habitat destruction. These animals may be on the brink of extinction.

The Center for Biological Diversity said all 25 hibernating bat species in North America may be affected by this fatal syndrome.

RELATED:

Rare bats, battered by white-nose syndrome, may warrant endangered species protection

U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service unveils plan to fight white-nose syndrome in bats

--Ashlie Rodriguez

Photo: A hibernating little brown bat in Pennsylvania, with white muzzle typical of white-nose syndrome. Credit: Paul Cryan/U.S. Geological Survey

 
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