Wildlife: April-May, 2009

Bat caves closed to protect bats from White-nose Syndrome

From an April Park Press Release: In response to a growing concern about a new malady that has killed an estimated 400,000 bats in the Northeast, managers at Great Smoky Mountains National Park have closed all of its caves to public entry until further notice.

According to biologists from the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, a condition called White-nose Syndrome (WNS) is taking a heavy toll on bats that hibernate in caves and mines in nine states from Virginia north to New Hampshire. WNS is named for a white fungus that shows up on the faces of bats, including the endangered Indiana Bat. The Indiana bat has been recorded in the Park and is among several species of special concern relative to this disease.

The disease causes bats to come out of hibernation severely underweight to the point that they often starve before the insects on which they feed emerge in the spring. Once a colony is infected with the fungus, it spreads rapidly and may kill up to 90% of the bats within that cave in one season.

Great Smoky Mountains National Park Wildlife Biologist, Bill Stiver said, “Biologists are still uncertain about the cause of WNS in bats. However, it is believed to be transmitted from bat to bat but also may be inadvertently transported from cave to cave by humans. It has not yet arrived in Tennessee or North Carolina, so we are closing all our caves to reduce the odds of the fungus hitching a ride to our protected caves on a caver coming from a state where it is already established.”

“The Park is closing its caves in response to a recommendation from the Fish and Wildlife Service.” Stiver continued, “That closure advice does not apply to commercial tourist caves, but Fish and Wildlife is planning on working with commercial operators to minimize potential for spread from those sources. There is no known human health risk related to WNS.”

Park managers say that the Smokies has 17 caves and two mine complexes that are now closed under the advisory and that a permit has always been required to enter them. No permits will be issued and violators face fines of up to $5,000 or six months imprisonment.

More information on the disease and this closure is available at the Great Smoky Mountains National Park cave website. You can also read answers to frequently asked questions about White-nose syndrome from the Fish and Wildlife Service.

Call for public help with elk

This information was originally published in a press release April 15, 2009: The Great Smoky Mountains National Park Volunteers-in-Parks program is enlisting volunteers to assist with the experimental elk reintroduction project in Cataloochee Valley, N.C.

The “Elk Bugle Corps” program was created in 2007 to assist rangers with providing visitor information on responsible elk viewing practices and elk behavior and to help with parking and traffic management. “Last year, the Corps included 58 volunteers from around the area. They donated over 5,000 hours of service and spoke with over 60,000 visitors who came to see the elk. Many of these volunteers are returning, some for their third year, but the volunteer program has room to grow,” said Mark LaShell, Cataloochee Park Ranger. The Park’s goal is to recruit and train a new cadre of volunteers who can commit to volunteering on a regular, recurring basis.

Each volunteer is being asked to work at least two scheduled, four hour shifts per month starting the last week in May through November. This target period is during high visitor use from late spring during the calving season through the end of fall color season after the elk mating period. The program’s greatest need is for volunteers to work the afternoon shifts which will run from approximately 1 p.m. to 5 p.m. through the summer. “Although the elk are not as active at this time of day, Cataloochee Valley is still relatively busy and the volunteers have the opportunity to spend more time with individual visitors,” said LaShell. The volunteers spend their time roving the valley and in past years, Bugle Corps volunteers used a gas-fueled ATV to shuttle around the valley. A zero-emissions neighborhood electric vehicle that was provided through a grant from the North Carolina Solar Center at North Carolina State University, combined with a donation by the Friends of Great Smoky Mountains National Park, is now used by the volunteers. “The environmentally friendly vehicle fits the needs of the Elk Bugle Corps perfectly,” he said.

LaShell commented, “We feel the program is a win-win situation. We continue to receive positive feedback from the Cataloochee volunteers who enjoy working is such a beautiful mountain valley and from visitors who receive a better experience having these volunteers to interact with in an otherwise remote area with no personal services.”

For the 2009 season, training was held in Cataloochee Valley at the Palmer Barn on Tuesday, May 5. To volunteer during the 2010 season, look for next year’s announcement around mid-April, 2010.

Return to Resource Roundup: April-May, 2009.

Did You Know?