All the aggressive, proactive steps taken to prevent the spread of the deadly white-nose syndrome to Carter Caves State Resort Park have failed.
Officials confirmed Thursday bats collected from three caves inside the park — Bat, Saltpetre and Laurel — were infected with the deadly fungal disease spreading rapidly across the United States since its discovery in 2006, killing millions of the insect-eating mammals. Nearly 40,000 endangered Indiana bats hibernate annually in Carter Caves, representing half of those in Kentucky, park officials say.
Bats at Kingdom Come State Park Nature Preserve in Letcher County and at Mammoth Cave National Park in Edmonson County also tested positive for the disease in January. The disease has now spread across the commonwealth, having been found in 10 counties at 25 different sites.
The disease spread to Carter Caves despite the park’s closing to visitors four years ago all three caves in which infected bats were found. At the same time, Carter Caves canceled its annual Crawl-a-Thon, the park’s most popular off-season attraction, in an effort to prevent the spread of white nose. At the time, the disease, which had killed thousands of bat in the northeastern U.S., had not spread to Kentucky.
However, Carter Caves park naturalist Coy Ainsley said park officials knew then its efforts probably would not be successful in preventing the spread of disease named for the appearance of a white fungus that grows on the muzzle and other body parts of hibernating bats. The disease disrupts their hibernation and leads to starvation or dehydration. That’s a horrible way for any creature to die.
“We knew it was coming, but that doesn’t make it any easier,” Ainsley said of the disease’s arrival at Carter Caves.
In 2011, Kentucky State Parks began requiring guests who take tours in two caves at Carter Caves that remained open, Cascade and X Cave, to disinfect their footwear and not to wear clothing that has been worn in other caves. Ainsley said those precautions would continue. Those efforts are critical because an estimated 40,000 bats annually hibernate in the caves at the state park.
White nose has no known cure and is believed to be spread by infected bats. Ainsley said the park will be meeting with U.S. Department of Fish and Wildlife, Kentucky Department of Fish and Wildlife and Kentucky State Nature Preserve officials to discuss the way forward.
“We’re just going to go over stuff and see if there is any new research that has been done, see what other agencies are doing. We just want to make sure we’re up to snuff,” said Ainsley.
The infection of bats at Carter Caves does not appear to be severe at this point, but it is expected to spread among the bat populations at the park with infection and mortality rates picking up each year, Ainsley said. “It’s just a matter of time. The bats are intermingling with one another, it’s just going to become more widespread,” he said.
Experience tells Carter Caves officials that by the third year the disease exists in a cave, “you see around 80 percent mortality” state, Ainsley said.
As the disease grows worse, bats begin to exhibit uncharacteristic behavior during cold winter months. They become irritated, wake from hibernation and move toward the entrances of caves or begin flying around foraging in the cold months and freeze to death.
Many people do not realize the value of bats in controlling insect populations. Instead they think of them as creepy little creatures rather frightening to have around. That’s a bad rap, Ainsley said.
“Bats are a great thing to have around for us,” the naturalist said. “They help control those insects that not only bite us at night but affect our crops. They kept things in check. They are cool critters. You just want to go in there, grab them and take them to safety.”
Ainsley said the park will continue to educate the public about the disease and encourage donations to help researchers determine its cause and find a potential cure.
Carter Caves did the best it could to prevent the spread of white nose, including closing most of its caves to the public and canceling its most popular winter attraction. Those steps likely slowed the arrival of the deadly disease to the park, but it did not prevent it. It may be years before park visitors can take tours in Cascade and Bat caves, but the impact of the closed tours on the park’s economy is secondary to saving as many bats as possible from dying from a horrible disease.