Published Jan. 22, 2009: Carter Caves' Crawlathon canceled to protect bats

Putting the safety of an endangered species ahead of dark and sometimes muddy fun, officials have canceled the annual Crawlathon this weekend at Carter Caves State Resort Park.

The goal is to prevent spread of a little-understood disease called white-nose syndrome. It is thought to have killed thousands of hibernating bats since it was discovered in New York in February 2007. It has since been found in five other states.

The disease has not been seen in Kentucky bats. But the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service advised state officials that allowing a lot of people into caves in the park could raise the risk of spreading it here.

About 40,000 Indiana bats, an endangered species, spend the winter at Carter Caves in Eastern Kentucky's Carter County, said Mark Marraccina, a spokesman for the Kentucky Department of Fish and Wildlife Resources. That represents about 65 percent of the Indiana bats in the state, he said.

"They're worried about spreading it," Marraccina said. "It can come in on equipment, ropes, shoes, probably a lot of different ways."

The fear of spreading the disease is a one-way street. Gil Lawson, a spokesman for the state Department of Parks, said there are no known cases of humans catching the disease.

About 600 people had registered for the Crawlathon, Lawson said.

About half of them are scouts, mostly Boy Scouts, he said. Late Tuesday, officials began calling and e-mailing people who had registered for the event. Most had been reached by early Wednesday afternoon. Their payments will be refunded.

White-nose syndrome gets its name from the white fungus that appears around the nose of some affected bats. Biologists are not sure whether the fungus causes the bats to die or merely takes advantage of bats that have been weakened by some other malady.

They also are not sure how the syndrome spreads. After being spotted in a cave in New York, it was soon found in Vermont, Connecticut and Massachusetts.

U.S. Fish and Wildlife Serv ice officials have been asking cavers to decontaminate themselves and their equipment before entering and after leaving caves.

Kentucky officials had been considering going ahead with the Crawlathon and requiring decontamination. But the discovery of the disease in recent weeks in New Jersey and Pennsylvania changed their minds, and the event was canceled.