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Indiana Bats
Hibernating Indiana bats
Caving: The Other Casualty of WNS?

by Ken Redeker
redeker@ravenswoodmedia.com

Bats are beloved. Everyone wants what's best for them. But like a family confronting sickness in one of their own, it can either pull them together or drive them apart. White Nose Syndrome (WNS) is that divisive disease.

At the conservative end of the spectrum is the Center for Biological Diversity (CBD) which advocates a blanket closure of all caves on public land from the east to the west coast. On the opposite end, are many cavers from the National Speleological Society (NSS) who suggest only closing caves that are home to large bat populations. Caught directly in the middle of the controversy is the United States Fish and Wildlife Service (US FWS).

Molly Matteson
Molly Matteson

Molly Matteson, a conservation advocate with the CBD is frustrated. "At this point, I don't see a lot of room for compromise with the NSS," she stated. "It's [WNS] so fast moving, and the opportunity to make a difference is now, and it won't be there 5 or 10 years down the road." The CBD estimates mortality rates 70 – 90% are seen in infected bat hibernacula, and some colonies have been completely annihilated . Molly adds, "We have a number of species now that are at risk of disappearing from the face of the earth and we really need to... come up with some effective way of dealing with this so that our bats don't go extinct. The time is now for action."

Peter Youngbaer
Peter Youngbaer testifying before Congress on WNS

However, Peter Youngbaer, who is the WNS liaison for the NSS, fears that a nationwide closure will have a harmful impact on cave conservation. Cavers are the first to recognize a problem in that environment. They are the eyes and ears of caves. Peter cites an incident in Indiana where a scientist was denied access to the caves where he wanted to research cave fish, because of the closures. "Do we close off this research in 'an abundance of caution' approach to cave closures to ostensibly protect bats? Where is the balance? Look at the science of karst hydrology in terms of protection of groundwater, and the information that supplies to surface developers and regulators, and the benefit to public health and ecosystem health." Peter has witnessed an expanding atmosphere of distrust among cavers targeted at the USFWS. "There has been a falloff in donations from cavers to the NSS, WNS Rapid Response Fund... I know there is some backlash from cavers to contributing to projects that some perceive as coming back to haunt them in terms of management decisions.

Ann Froschauer
Ann Froschauer

Ann Froschauer, the communications leader from the US FWS, has hard decisions to make. She is being pulled in two directions in aggressive tug-of-war between the Center For Biological Diversity and the NSS. Listening to Ann, it is easy to understand her dilemma. "Our service... is recognizing the contributions to science and conservation that the caving community brings. But at the same time trying to balance that with what really is likely the best course of action to provide for the most protection for the bats." It's a painstaking mix of needing more information and having to act. She added, "and not knowing the potential impact for transmission by humans verses bats is the one thing that we can sort of control right now.. that it is very likely that humans are able to transmit those things. In looking at how, do we really try to slow this down to buy ourselves even a year? We're leaps and bounds ahead of where we were this time last year with our understanding of gd [Geomyces destructans]."

Pat Kambesis
Pat Kambesis
by Melissa Hendrickson

At this point, no one is certain what is causing WNS or how it's being spread. However, US FWS has developed a set of protocols for cleaning equipment between cave visits in the hope it will slow the the spread of the disease. Pat Kambesis, a geologist at the Hoffman Environmental Research Institute at Western Kentucky University thinks the rules are appropriate. She compared the situation to that of the Transportation Security Administration (TSA). "In some ways it's kind of like TSA," she says, "in order to make everybody feel safe... then you have to to do all these crazy things like at the airport." She feels, "If you change your caving habits as a recreational caver, and decide it's not going to just be about me, and can also be about the cave. Maybe that's one way you start to bridge that gap with that agency." She views the current situation as a challenge to better protect caves in general. "It's making people more careful about their impact on caves... Even if [WNS] it goes away that lasting result of how we can minimize our impact will be making people think about that. I think that, in a sense is a positive thing."

Ken Redeker
Ken Redeker

I discovered 18 years ago, that caving was the most effective therapy in existence to combat my Obsessive Compulsive Disorder which has plagued me since I was a teenager. The intense focus necessary for caving essentially saved my life and I can't easily give it up. But now, bats need my help. I don't agree with a blanket closure of caves because I don't believe it would be effective. However, White Nose Syndrome is such an unprecedented ecological disaster that I need to suppress what I believe and follow the rules outlined by the US FWS. We need to come together as a community and that community includes the FWS and the Center for Biological Diversity. These are our partners and the time to listen to one another is now.