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SHERIDAN — Four caves in the Bighorn National Forest are now open after being closed since 2010 to prevent the spread of a fungus that is deadly to bats. In order to enter caves and abandoned mines, cavers must register with the U.S. Forest Service, decontaminate after exiting the cave and follow seasonal closures.
The fungus, Geomyces destructans, causes white-nose syndrome and was found as far east as Oklahoma before the implementation of widespread cave closures on state and federal land. The fungus has not been confirmed in the Rocky Mountain region.
“It was a preventative thing to take precautions to preserve the health of the bats,” Resources Staff Officer Bernie Bornong said.
Four caves in the Bighorn National Forest were opened to the public this month: Big Piney, Cliff Dweller’s, Eaton’s Cave and Tongue River Cave. All four caves will be closed between Oct. 15 and April 15 to allow bats to hibernate safely over the winter, Bornong said.
The U.S. Forest Service will use an adaptive management strategy in Kansas, South Dakota, Colorado and Wyoming, replacing three years’ worth of emergency closures with a plan that allows access but continues to monitor bat populations and prepare for closures if white-nose syndrome is discovered.
Spread of the virus is thought to be largely bat-to-bat, but humans can carry fungus spores on their clothes and equipment from cave to cave, spreading white-nose syndrome. Obtaining a permit requires thorough review of decontamination procedures.
Primary means of decontamination are through submersion in hot water or use of all-purpose cleaners. Clothing and gear should be clean before entering the cave and should be disinfected immediately upon leaving the cave or placed in an airtight container for decontamination at home.
Any clothes or gear used in states or counties with known or confirmed cases of white-nose syndrome cannot be used in states with no confirmed cases of the disease.
Bornong said it takes approximately 30 minutes to read the decontamination rules and get registered to enter a cave. Permits are emailed to applicants and are required for each caving expedition.
While cave closures were conducted on a year-by-year basis, the opening is permanent, Bornong said. There is an adaptive provision written into the environmental assessment that will allow caves and abandoned mines on U.S. Forest Service land to be closed if white-nose syndrome is found within 250 miles of a cave.
White-nose syndrome was discovered in the winter of 2006 in New York. It has caused the death of more than 5.5 million bats in eastern North America since its discovery. There are more than 1,200 species of bats in the world. They help control insect populations and pollinate plants and disperse flower seeds.
Bat conservation groups are against the cave openings, according to a press release from the Center for Biological Diversity stating that important bat sites should be closed year-round since the fungus that causes white-nose syndrome can remain dormant for long periods of time.
For more information on cave openings and registration on the Bighorn National Forest, visit www.usda.gov/r2/ and click on white-nose syndrome adaptive management strategy. For more information on white-nose syndrome, visit www.whitenosesyndrome.org.