New Mexico cave closes to protect bats

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By Special to the Monitor

White nose syndrome is spreading west quickly
Federal and state land management agencies will enact partial closures for some caves and abandoned mines on public lands in New Mexico in response to the spread of white-nose syndrome (WNS), a disease affecting bats. WNS is responsible for the death of more than 1 million bats in the eastern United States and Canada.
Preventing the potential human transmission of the fungus associated with the disease into New Mexico and containing any occurrences discovered within the state is the focus of public land managers. The closures on New Mexico’s public lands will primarily affect caves and abandoned mines that are known to have significant bat roosts but will not affect developed caves, like Carlsbad Cavern in Carlsbad Caverns National Park. 
To help ensure that visitors are not bringing the fungus into the cave, Carlsbad Caverns National Park will follow Mammoth Cave National Park’s lead and develop a process to screen visitors before they enter caves within the park.
“Our ongoing risk assessment has shown that most visitors pose little threat to the park’s bats since their roosts are far from visitor trails, “ said Carlsbad Caverns National Park Superintendent John Benjamin. “By keeping our developed caves open where the risk of this fungus transmission is low, we will be able to continue educating the public about bats and WNS.”
In February 2006 some 40 miles west of Albany, N.Y., a caver photographed hibernating bats with an unusual white substance on their muzzles. He noticed several dead bats. The following winter, bats behaving erratically, bats with white noses, and a few hundred dead bats in several caves came to the attention of New York Department of Environmental Conservation biologists, who documented white-nose syndrome in January 2007. More than a million hibernating bats have died since. Biologists with state and federal agencies and organizations across the country are still trying to find the answer to this deadly mystery.
“We have found sick, dying and dead bats in unprecedented numbers in and around caves and mines from New Hampshire to Tennessee. In some hibernacula, 90 to 100 percent of the bats are dying,” according to reports.
While they are in the hibernacula, affected bats often have white fungus on their muzzles and other parts of their bodies. They may have low body fat. These bats often move to cold parts of the hibernacula, fly during the day and during cold winter weather when the insects they feed upon are not available, and exhibit other uncharacteristic behavior.
Despite the continuing search to find the source of this condition by numerous laboratories and state and federal biologists, the cause of the bat deaths remains unknown. A newly discovered cold-loving fungus, Geomyces destructans, invades the skin of bats. Scientists are exploring how the fungus acts and searching for a way to stop it.
WNS has severely affected bats in the northeastern United States since it was first identified in 2007. Some affected sites have experienced more than 95 percent mortality of bats, making this one of the worst wildlife health crises in recorded history. 
In May 2010, the fungus associated with WNS was confirmed on a western bat species in a cave in northwestern Oklahoma.  This is the most western report of the fungus to date, and puts the presumed cause of WNS approximately 250 miles from New Mexico. 
For more information regarding each agency’s approach and next steps, please contact Jim Stuart, New Mexico Game and Fish, 505-476-8107.