RUSSELLVILLE, Ark. (U.S. Forest Service) - Since 2009, employees in Arkansas' national forests and other conservation leaders have taken precautions and necessary measures in an effort to prevent the arrival of the deadly White Nose Syndrome disease into the state. This deadly disease could be a pre-cursor to an increase in a variety of pests, including mosquitos. It affects bats...and it's marching toward Arkansas.
In May 2009, the regional forester for the Southern Region issued a closure order for all caves and mines on National Forest system lands unless there are official Forest Service signs listing them as opened.
"This closure is solely to prevent the spread of this disease by human means, "said Steve Duzan, the Environmental Coordinator for the Ozark-St. Francis National Forests. "We're not sure of all the ways it can be spread, but if we do our part, hopefully scientists could find the cure before it's too late for our bats."
White-nose Syndrome is a fungus that causes bats to awaken during hibernation. The fungus is believed to cause bats to use up their fat reserves rapidly during hibernation. Affected bats fly out of caves during winter in an attempt to find food, however, since the insects they eat are seasonally dormant, the bats die of starvation.
The fungus has killed nearly seven million bats in the New England and Mid-Atlantic States and continues to spread unchecked. It has been confirmed in neighboring Missouri, and is suspected to be in western Oklahoma. The mold spores that lead to White Nose syndrome were confirmed in two caves in Arkansas earlier this year.
In an effort to prevent the human spread of the disease by clothes or equipment, most federal and state caves have been closed to the public. In Arkansas' national forests, all caves are closed, with the exception of Blanchard Springs Caverns in Stone County. Blanchard Springs Caverns follows U.S. Fish & Wildlife sanitation protocols for visitors before they tour the cave.
"We encourage everyone to help us inform people that caves across the national forests are off limits," Duzan said. "Almost everyone reaps benefits from bats. It is important that we all protect them and their hibernating areas."
Stopping the spread of the fungus is important to the nation's agricultural system because bats play such a key role in keeping insects, including agricultural pests, mosquitoes, and forest pests under control.
"Bats consume enormous quantities of agricultural pests and reduce the need for chemical pesticides," Duzan said.
Forest visitors who violate the cave order may be fined not more than $5,000 for an individual and $10,000 for an organization or imprisonment for not more than six months, or both.
For more information on the cave closure order and White Nose Syndrome, visit http://www.fs.usda.gov/detail/osfnf/home/?cid=STELPRDB5213741.