From the Illinois Department of Natural Resources
-- Illinois is closing state-owned and managed caves that support bat populations as part of a national effort to slow the spread of the mysterious White Nose Syndrome affecting bats in the northeastern United States.
The Department of Natural Resources closure will be in effect until further notice. Among the caves no longer open to visitors are the Illinois Caverns site in Monroe County in southwestern Illinois. Caves located at five other sites are also involved in the closure order. The caves are being closed to all visitor access in an effort to prevent humans from spreading white-nose syndrome among hibernating bat populations.
These actions follow recommendations of the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service that, along with other state and federal agencies, has closed several caves throughout the United States as a result of the disease.
White Nose Syndrome is a new wildlife disease of unknown origin that has killed hundreds of thousands of bats across the northeastern U.S. during the past three years. It continues to spread.
WNS has recently been detected in Missouri and threatens to stretch rapidly to other portions of the Midwest, home to several species of bats that are on the federal list of threatened and endangered species, as well as some of the largest populations of hibernating bats in the country.
“The evidence collected indicates that human activity in caves and abandoned mines may be assisting the spread of white-nose syndrome,” said IDNR Director Marc Miller. “Illinois is taking steps to reduce the risks of further spread of WNS. This involves the complete closure of all DNR-owned and managed caves for the foreseeable future.”
The primary agent of concern with White Nose Syndrome is a fungus that is new to science and may possibly have been unintentionally introduced into the United States. This fungus grows best in the cold and wet conditions common to caves and abandoned mines and likely can be transported inadvertently from site-to-site on the boots and gear of cave visitors.
“We hope that slowing the spread of WNS will buy time critical to confirm the cause of this disease and potentially implement management actions to minimize the impact on native bat populations,” said DNR Endangered Species Manager Joseph Kath. “Scientists are working to determine the cause of WNS. Whatever is causing WNS may remain in caves where bats hibernate even when bats are not present, and we are concerned that people may inadvertently carry WNS out of the cave with them.”
The IDNR is implementing the cave closure immediately and will review the order on a quarterly basis.
“We recognize that this complete cave closure effort will require sacrifice from the caving community and other citizens, and we regret this inconvenience. However, the observed devastation to bat populations, exceeding 90 percent mortality at many affected sites, and the evidence for human-assisted spread justifies that we exercise an abundance of caution in managing activities that impact caves and bats,” Kath added.
The Illinois DNR does not have the authority to close caves on lands which are not owned or managed by the Department, but is encouraging local government, public organizations and private landowners to immediately close caves on their property and prohibit human access to help prevent or slow the spread of WNS. DNR biologists can provide advice to private landowners regarding proper cave closure.
Questions regarding WNS and the cave closure effort should be directed to Joseph Kath, IDNR Endangered Species Manager, at (217)782-6384 or by e-mail to Joe.Kath@illinois.gov.