Caves in national forests closed to help ailing bats

Stay out of caves.

That's the message from the U.S. Forest Service, and even caver organizations, as bats continue to die from a mysterious disease called white-nose syndrome.

On Thursday, the Forest Service closed all caves in national forests in the southeast for a year. That includes the Daniel Boone National Forest, which has an estimated 1,000 caves.

"The closures will allow scientists and land managers time to work together and stop the fungus, learn how it spreads and how to best address it," said Liz Agpaoa, the forester in charge of the region that stretches from Oklahoma to Virginia and Florida.

Last month, caves in national forests from New England to Missouri were closed.

White-nose syndrome is thought to have killed 500,000 bats since it was found in New York in February 2007. It since has spread to 10 other states.

It has not yet been found in Kentucky, but is in caves in West Virginia near the Virginia border.

In January, the annual crawlathon at Carter Caves State Resort Park was canceled because of fears that the disease might be introduced by the hundreds of people who usually attend the event.

About 40,000 endangered Indiana bats — perhaps 65 percent of the population of the species in the state — spend the winter in Carter County in Eastern Kentucky.

Serious recreational cavers know about white-nose syndrome and are voluntarily staying out of caves, said Bill Walden, president of the Kentucky Speleological Survey. More casual cavers probably are unaware of the problem, he said.

The National Speleological Society has closed caves it owns in states that have white-nose syndrome or border states that do. That includes the Wells Cave Preserve in Pulaski County.

Dick Braun, a wildlife biologist for the Daniel Boone, said 124 caves in the forest have been closed for at least a decade because they are home to endangered or rare bats. Those include Indiana bats, Virginia big-eared bats and Rafinesque big-eared bats. The white-nose syndrome apparently attacks all species of bats.

Ninety to 100 percent of bats in infected caves die, but no one has figured out what causes white-nose syndrome or how it spreads.

Although some people fear bats, they are beneficial, consuming their weight in insects each night.