Center for Biological Diversity

Western Bats Need Protections Now

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A devastating new wildlife disease known as white-nose syndrome has killed more than a million bats in the eastern United States during the last four winters. The deadly bat malady, believed to be caused by an introduced fungus, threatens to move into the western half of the country. This fungus was found in western Oklahoma last spring -- a jump of 900 miles from the closest sites known the previous year.

In 2010, the Center for Biological Diversity filed a petition urging the administrative closure of all bat-occupied caves and mines on federal lands in the lower 48 states. In order to determine how federal land agencies have responded, we recently conducted a survey of the U.S. Forest Service, Bureau of Land Management, National Park Service and U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service. We found that although there have been some important cave closures, caves remain open across large swaths of the West, leaving bats vulnerable to the introduction of white-nose syndrome.

By playing a waiting game instead of closing caves, federal land managers are placing all the risk on bats, rather than taking responsibility for management decisions that could give bats an important margin for survival.

Our federal land agencies need to hear loud and clear that delaying action on white-nose syndrome is unacceptable. Where closures have not yet been instituted, all federal bat caves should be immediately declared closed to non-essential access. Please help us send this message today by filling in the form below.

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Please submit comments by June 26, 2011.

Little brown bat photo by Al Hicks, courtesy New York Department of Environmental Conservation.

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In our survey of western federal land managers, some seemed to hold to a wishful belief that the disease would not express itself in the same devastating ways it has in the eastern part of the country. Others desired more proactive measures but were stymied by political resistance to cave closures, lack of funds for planning and implementation, or the bureaucratic challenges of working within their own agency and on the interagency level.

While some federal units, notably within the National Park Service as well as some regions of the Forest Service, seem to be taking the threat of white-nose syndrome very seriously, few to none have moved with the alacrity that is needed. Too many federal officials simply said that more steps would occur if and when white-nose syndrome jumped the Continental Divide.

Frighteningly, it was only a year ago that the Mississippi River was seen as a major geographic marker in the spread of white-nose syndrome. The voices of bat advocates need to rise in opposition to those slowing urgently needed protective measures for these night-flying creatures. These measures include broad restrictions on non-essential access into federal bat caves and abandoned mines, strict requirements for decontamination procedures wherever access is allowed, and strong outreach and education programs to get the message out regarding cave closures and the reasoning behind them.

To date, federal cave closures for white-nose syndrome have occurred on eastern and southern national forests and all national forest lands in Colorado, Kansas, Nebraska, Wyoming and part of South Dakota. All caves on national wildlife refuges are now closed to recreational use. Some eastern national parks have closed caves due to the threat of white-nose syndrome, and a number of western national parks have instituted partial closures in response to the disease threat. One national monument in New Mexico recently issued a blanket closure of its caves, and the BLM has closed about two dozen bat caves in that state, as well.

However, this leaves the vast majority of BLM lands and national forests in the Southwest, Intermountain West, Montana, Idaho, Pacific Northwest and California still open for cave visitation. Most of the federal managers for these units said that there was no definite timeframe within which they would be restricting cave access. Another westward leap of white-nose syndrome could change this picture, as many agency staff said there would be more sweeping cave closures if the disease moved into their area. Unfortunately, by then it would likely be too late.