April 3, 2009
Bob Miller, (865) 436-1207
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 http://www.nps.gov/grsm/naturescience/caves.htm