Daily Independent (Ashland, KY)

Editorials

February 27, 2014

Efforts to contain white-nose syndrome have so far failed

At both Carter Caves and Mammoth Cave

ASHLAND — Efforts by officials at Carter Caves State Resort Park to prevent white-nose syndrome from spreading among bats have so far failed. The same is true further west at Mammoth Cave, the world’s largest cave system and the only national park in Kentucky.

But at both the national park in Edmonson County and at the state park in Carter County, there are no plans to close more caves to visitors. Instead, officials plan to keep doing what they have been doing for more than a year now in hopes it becomes more effective in halting the spread of the disease that has led to the deaths of millions of bats in the eastern United States.

The disease poses no threat to humans. But while humans cannot get sick from bats suffering from white-nose syndrome while touring the caves, they can unknowingly spread the disease. That’s what  park officials at both Carter Caves and Mammoth Cave are trying to prevent.

White-nose syndrome, so named because infected bats get a white area on and near their noses, was first identified in bats in a cave in  New York in 2006, but it has spread westward at an alarming rate and is now in caves throughout the northeastern United States, as far south as Alabama and as far west as Missouri. Millions of bats have died from the disease in the eastern United States. Bat, Saltpeter and Laurel caves at Carter Caves have been closed since 2008 in an effort  to stop the fungus from spreading, but despite those efforts, dead or diseased bats continue to be found in new areas.

The disease was found in remote sections of Mammoth Cave last year. However, just this week, the National Park Service announced the disease has been discovered in bats in the passageways of Mammoth Cave that are open to park visitors.

At both Carter Caves and  Mammoth Cave, the main tactic to control the spread of the disease is decontamination, specifically the shoe soles of those who enter the caves, said Carter Caves Park Naturalist Coy Ainsley. The park has installed footwear disinfecting stations outside caves still open to the public. Guests who enter caves also aren’t allowed to wear clothing that has been worn in other caves.

Mammoth Cave spokeswoman Vickie Carson said there are no plans to change the way the park operates its tours or research. Approved cleaning methods recommended by the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service are being adhered to. For some time, visitors have had to walk through bio-security mats as they exit cave tours, for instance.

The severity of the disease remains unknown at both Carter Caves and Mammoth Cave.

Ainsley said there will be an official bat count at Carter Caves next year, but for now, officials only know they have seen some dead bats and live bats outside the caves during the winter. That’s a bad sign because it indicates the bats are infected. While the disease itself is not fatal, it causes a fungus to grow on the muzzle; the fungus irritates the bat and causes it to wake from its hibernation. When that happens, the bat uses stored energy that should have lasted it through the winter and flies out to forage for food. But the insects it eats are not there in the winter and the bat typically starves.

The dead bats found near the welcome center and its environs are probably only a fraction of those that die because the ones that fall in the woods are never observed, Ainsley said.

“We have observed some increase in bat activity, which may be due to the illness,” said Mammoth Cave Park Superintendent Sarah Craighead.  “We have also found several dead bats in the last few weeks.”

The greatest concern from the white-nose syndrome is the death of millions of bats. While many of us consider the small flying mammals a bit on the creepy side, bats help maintain the balance of nature, paticularly by making insects the source of their diets. We need bats, and our hope is that a more effective way of curbing the spread of white-know syndrome can soon be found.

But at both the national park in Edmonson County and at the state park in Carter County, there are no plans to close more caves to visitors. Instead, officials plan to keep doing what they have been doing for more than a year now in hopes it becomes more effective in halting the spread of the disease that has led to the deaths of millions of bats in the eastern United States.

The disease poses no threat to humans. But while humans cannot get sick from bats suffering from white-nose syndrome while touring the caves, they can unknowingly spread the disease. That’s what  park officials at both Carter Caves and Mammoth Cave are trying to prevent.

White-nose syndrome, so named because infected bats get a white area on and near their noses, was first identified in bats in a cave in  New York in 2006, but it has spread westward at an alarming rate and is now in caves throughout the northeastern United States, as far south as Alabama and as far west as Missouri. Millions of bats have died from the disease in the eastern United States. Bat, Saltpeter and Laurel caves at Carter Caves have been closed since 2008 in an effort  to stop the fungus from spreading, but despite those efforts, dead or diseased bats continue to be found in new areas.

The disease was found in remote sections of Mammoth Cave last year. However, just this week, the National Park Service announced the disease has been discovered in bats in the passageways of Mammoth Cave that are open to park visitors.

At both Carter Caves and  Mammoth Cave, the main tactic to control the spread of the disease is decontamination, specifically the shoe soles of those who enter the caves, said Carter Caves Park Naturalist Coy Ainsley. The park has installed footwear disinfecting stations outside caves still open to the public. Guests who enter caves also aren’t allowed to wear clothing that has been worn in other caves.

Mammoth Cave spokeswoman Vickie Carson said there are no plans to change the way the park operates its tours or research. Approved cleaning methods recommended by the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service are being adhered to. For some time, visitors have had to walk through bio-security mats as they exit cave tours, for instance.

The severity of the disease remains unknown at both Carter Caves and Mammoth Cave.

Ainsley said there will be an official bat count at Carter Caves next year, but for now, officials only know they have seen some dead bats and live bats outside the caves during the winter. That’s a bad sign because it indicates the bats are infected. While the disease itself is not fatal, it causes a fungus to grow on the muzzle; the fungus irritates the bat and causes it to wake from its hibernation. When that happens, the bat uses stored energy that should have lasted it through the winter and flies out to forage for food. But the insects it eats are not there in the winter and the bat typically starves.

The dead bats found near the welcome center and its environs are probably only a fraction of those that die because the ones that fall in the woods are never observed, Ainsley said.

“We have observed some increase in bat activity, which may be due to the illness,” said Mammoth Cave Park Superintendent Sarah Craighead.  “We have also found several dead bats in the last few weeks.”

The greatest concern from the white-nose syndrome is the death of millions of bats. While many of us consider the small flying mammals a bit on the creepy side, bats help maintain the balance of nature, paticularly by making insects the source of their diets. We need bats, and our hope is that a more effective way of curbing the spread of white-know syndrome can soon be found.

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