From the Texas Parks and Wildlife Department
-- Access to Gorman Cave at Colorado Bend State Park has been closed to the public and additional precautions are being taken at other Texas Parks and Wildlife Department caves to protect bats from the spread of White Nose Syndrome (WNS), a contagious disease almost always fatal to bats.
The cave is home to a hibernating colony of Cave Myotis, a bat species known to be susceptible to White Nose Syndrome. Operation and public visitation of Longhorn Caverns, near Inks Lake State Park, will not be affected. Private show caves are also not affected, though landowners may impose similar precautionary actions on their own.
Public viewing of bat flights at Old Tunnel Wildlife Management Area, Stuart Bat Cave at Kickapoo Caverns and Devil's Sinkhole near Rocksprings will not be affected. However, public access inside those caves is now off-limits.
These precautions are being implemented under a TPWD executive order and only affect agency-owned sites.
Since 2006, when WNS was first discovered in a cave in New York, more than a million hibernating bats of eight species in 14 states have died from the disease. Five of those eight species also inhabit Texas, where more than 50 species of bats live. The fungus that causes WNS has not yet been detected in Texas, but was confirmed in Oklahoma in May 2010.
The TPWD strategy to prevent the spread of WNS includes increased public awareness for park visitors and decontamination procedures for researchers who are working around or in the caves.
White Nose Syndrome (WNS) is named for a white fungus that is found on the noses and wings of infected bats. Bats with WNS awaken prematurely from hibernation and leave their caves, using up their fat reserves that they need to last through the winter which can cause them to freeze or starve to death.
John Young, a TPWD mammologist, says scientists still know little about the disease or how to treat it. Because bats are migratory, the fungus is often spread when bats from an infected cave migrate to another cave.
Young also said there is some speculation that humans can spread the fungus through spores on their clothing and backpacks, but this method of transfer has not been confirmed. Nonetheless, he said, it's a method officials can control.
"We know we can limit the potential for people accidentally transporting the fungus by limiting or restricting access to caves," Young said. The need to protect bats from WNS is urgent because bats play a vital role in the environment.
"Bats eat millions of insect pests," he said. "We can't even begin to estimate the impact that a massive loss of bat species would have on crops, the Texas economy and our environment."
If anyone sees a bat behaving strangely or has questions about WNS can contact Young or the TPWD Kills and Spills Team at (512) 389-4848.