Cavers will soon have access to Black Hills caves the U.S. Forest Service closed three years ago to protect bats from the deadly white-nose syndrome.
The fungal disease has killed almost 7 million North American bats since its discovery in 2006. Hibernating bats infected with the disease develop a white fungus on their muzzles, ears and wing membranes.
The disease was first found in New York state. It has been confirmed as far west as Oklahoma.
The disease most commonly spread from bat to bat and by humans who come in contact with it in a cave and carry it on their clothing or equipment to another cave.
The U.S. Forest Service issued an emergency closure order in 2010 to protect bat populations living and hibernating in caves and mines in its five-state Rocky Mountain Region, which encompasses South Dakota, Colorado, Nebraska, Kansas and most of Wyoming.
The closure order applied only to caves and mines on National Forest Lands and not those on private property, according to Trey Schillie, the environmental coordinator for the Rocky Mountain Region, headquartered in Golden, Colo.
The closure order was renewed each year while a new management plan was developed that would protect bat populations and give cavers access to caves controlled by the Forest Service. There were specific exemptions to the closures for active members of the National Speleological Society.
Forest Service officials have decided to let the annually renewed closure order expire on July 31.
Bat conservationists appealed that decision, but their appeal was denied June 26, according to a Center for Biological Diversity press release. The center sharply criticized the reopening of the government controlled caves.
"The first tragedy of white-nose syndrome is the disease itself," said Mollie Matteson, a bat specialist with the Center. "The second tragedy is the failure of our government agencies, whose mission is to protect our public lands and wildlife, to do their very best to safeguard the future of these creatures. Thirty years from now, will anyone feel good that caving went on more or less as usual, but the bats that lived in our caves went extinct?"
But safeguards will be implemented to help reduce the risk of spreading the disease, Schillie said.
"The caves will be open under certain circumstances," Schillie said. "This is a new twist."
Cavers will be required to use a free online registration system that is now under development. They will have to agree to certain terms, including a mandate that they will use only new caving gear that does not come from one of the 22 states where the disease has been detected.
"We want to have a way to interact with cavers," Schillie said. The registration will provide a feedback mechanism by inviting cavers to fill out a trip report after their visits. It will help enhance monitoring of the caves, something that has been difficult, he said.
Cavers will print off a copy of their registration and carry it with them when they go exploring.
In the Black Hills a "belt and suspenders" approach to protect caves from the disease will be implemented, Schillie said. Every piece of equipment, including shoes, must be decontaminated before and after entering a cave.
"The decontaminated procedures aren't that difficult to get used to," said Kerry Burns, a forest biologist working in the Black Hills National Forest. Decontamination is becoming an accepted practice in many environments. Boaters now decontaminate their boats to prevent the spread of invasive mussels, he said.
About 19 caves in the Black Hills will have additional restrictions. These are biologically important as nesting and winter hibernation spots for bats. Some of those caves are equipped with bat gates, Burns said.
Popular hibernating caves will be closed from mid-October through the late spring.
Significant caves in the Hills are considered a protected resource, so it's going to be a challenge to close those caves without letting people know which ones are closed, Burns said.
"We're not supposed to give out the names," Burns said.
The Forest Service has a good working relationship with the local Paha Sapa Grotto, an internal organization of the National Speleological Society, Burns said. The group has helped monitor caves by providing registration materials at entrances and building bat gates to keep people out during nesting and hibernation seasons.
No one knows for sure how many caves are hidden in the Black Hills. There are about 14 popular bigger caves, but there are a lot of little caves. Burns is sure spelunkers are more familiar with these little caves than he is.
Protecting the Black Hills' bat population from white-nose syndrome will take the combined efforts of the caving community and the Forest Service, Burns said. He is certain that cavers will be willing to help monitor the caves while they're exploring below ground.
"I'm sure they're looking forward to going into their favorite caves," Burns said.