DAYTON — The fungus that precurses white-nose syndrome in bats was discovered May 16, 2018 at Fort Laramie National Historic Site in Goshen County. Before the fungus ever hit Wyoming’s bat population, Bighorn National Forest biologists were working to prevent the disease by keeping close watch over the bats’ home — caves. Although enforcing regulations have slipped due to little funding and manpower, biologists hope to spread the word about safe spelunking before the spread of disease takes hold.
Four caves in the Bighorn National Forest — Big Piney, Cliff Dweller’s, Eaton’s Cave and Tongue River Cave — closed in 2010, attempting to jump ahead of the quickly-spreading white-nose syndrome in bats from the eastern United States.
“That was an effort to try to reduce the impact or the introduction of the fungus that causes white-nose,” wildlife biologist Tracy Pinter said. “That’s why we wanted registration for people in the cave, mainly to just see how busy the caves are and also to get them the decontamination protocol information about it.”
The caves reopened for recreators in 2013 but remain seasonal attractions.
The Sheridan Press previously published an article on the disease, saying that white-nose syndrome affects hibernating bats, according to the white-nose syndrome website.
A white fungus appears on the muzzle and is associated with extensive mortality of bats. Bats with the disease will act strangely during cold winter months, including flying outside in the day and clustering near the entrances of caves and mines where bats hibernate.
The disease has killed more than 5.7 million bats in eastern North America, and in some hibernacula, or caves and mines, 90 to 100 percent of bats have died.
The fungus does not necessarily mean the bat will contract the disease, but bats are more prone with the initial fungus.
Due to the continued risk of spreading disease for the nocturnal creatures, the forest service requires those wishing to explore the caves to follow regulations set in place after the dwellings’ reopenings.
A Google search will lead people to a press release from 2017 requiring registration, decontamination and adherence to seasonal closures from Oct. 15 to April 15 each year.
Registration proved difficult to find, as the actual document is not listed with either press release or on the Bighorn National Forest website. The cave registration form may be found in PDF format on the Rocky Mountain Region section of the forest service’s website. After filling out the form, it must be returned by email to email@example.com. Advanced notice is suggested, as a response from the forest service is required before continuing on a spelunking adventure.
Signage near the Tongue River Cave was vandalized by visitors of the area and taken down by forest service personnel. Again due to limited budget and personnel, the forest service has not replaced the signs. The agency anticipates new signs this fall and is coordinating with Wyoming Game and Fish Department to replace the gate, catering more to bats. U.S. Forest Service Powder River Ranger District public affairs officer Suzan Guilford said the gate was removed by a member of the public. The abuse endured by the cave — graffiti, abused signage, trash in the caves and destroying the gate — has forced groups into the caves to clean up after careless users. Although damage does present a laundry list for complete restoration, the cave is not being managed as a sacrifice — or final effort for restoration — cave.
“It’s just another treasure that years ago (we) didn’t think about,” Guilford said. “It’s a nice recreational opportunity … if people (could) enjoy it and then leave it in its natural state so people can enjoy it for years to come.”
The rumor that Pinter heard about Tongue River Cave being managed as a sacrifice cave is false.
“It’s just our most visited cave and our most misused cave by the public,” Pinter said.
Beyond preserving bat populations in Tongue River Cave, Pinter and other forest service personnel remain concerned for safety of visitors and the preservation of the feature.
Pinter organized a clean-up with Hole in the Wall Grotto, a group based in Casper with members in other parts of the state.
The group is an active affiliate of the National Speleological Society with a mission to find, explore and preserve caves.
“Hopefully we’ll continue to have those kinds of efforts in the future,” Pinter said.
Contamination requirements are listed along with the press release from previous Bighorn National Forest Supervisor Bill Bass. The biggest concern for decontamination is ensuring everything has been washed and cleaned with disinfecting chemicals registered safe with the Environmental Protection Agency or hot water at or above 131 degrees Fahrenheit for a minimum of 20 minutes.
For those anticipating a trip to Tongue River Cave or others in the Bighorn National Forest, regulations must be followed for the protection of bat populations, safety of those recreating in the area and the preservation of a hidden treasure.