Near dark iron gates that cover cave openings in the Flatirons, a sign explains that the caves have been closed because white-nose syndrome has already killed more than 5 million bats. Local author and cave expert Richard Rhinehart informed the City of Boulder’s Open Space and Mountain Parks (OSMP) office of an inaccuracy on the signs. But the money had already been spent, he says, on the sign and the ornate gate with iron-wrought bat silhouettes. He guesses it’s one reason why Boulder won’t lift its year-round cave closures, even as recent research has persuaded the U.S. Forest Service to lift its closures. The differing policies have sparked a debate about who has the facts, who listens to whom and who’s really protecting bats. Both recreationists and conservationists are questioning whether Boulder’s closures can stop the spread of the disease.
White-nose syndrome is caused by a fungus. Infected bats wake up from hibernation, disturbed by the fungus growing on their snouts. Fidgeting and flying around, they burn through their calorie reserves. In the cold winter, with no food available, they starve to death.
Believing that the fungal spores could be transmitted on human boots and caving gear, Boulder and the Forest Service both initiated year-round cave closures to slow the spores’ westward march in 2010.
“When white-nose syndrome made that big jump to Oklahoma, that concerned a lot of us in the West,” says Tina Jackson, species conservation coordinator at Colorado Parks and Wildlife.
Boulder’s caves will remain closed, according to a recent OSMP press release, along with nearby crags popular with rock climbers. Climbers respect the closures, says Matt Samet of the Flatirons Climbing Council, because they recognize OSMP’s need to protect species in the Flatirons.
The closures protect habitat for a declining bat species, says Will Keeley, wildlife biologist at OSMP. The OSMP press release states that the closures protect species considered sensitive by the Forest Service and Bureau of Land Management (BLM) — especially due to white-nose syndrome.
But the Forest Service and BLM aren’t keeping the public out of their caves or nearby climbing areas.
“Boulder is making this decision on their own,” says Paul Ryan, vice chair of the National Speleological Society’s Colorado Grotto.
This summer, the Forest Service will re-open caves to the general public, says Steve Lenzo, the Forest Service line officer representative on cave management decisions in the Rocky Mountain region. Permits will still be required for caves heavily used by sensitive bats. The spores still haven’t crossed the Great Plains toward the Rockies, he says, and may not ever make it as far as Colorado.
The fungus can survive only under specific temperature and humidity conditions, Jackson explains. So her agency is collecting data on microclimates in caves.
“The Forest Service cave closures did impact our ability to do internal work,” she says. But last summer, the Forest Service began allowing researchers and “organized” cavers to enter its caves.
Cavers also help with research, Lenzo says.
“We don’t have the resources to monitor every cave,” he says.
The new Forest Service plan, which proposes opening caves to all of the public, will require observations from cavers.
“The caving community can be an early warning system,” Lenzo says. “They were pleased with the decision.”
The relationship between Forest Service staff and cavers has been strained since the 2010 cave closures, according to Rhinehart and Derek Bristol, chair of the Colorado Cave Survey.
“There will probably be some lingering tension,” Bristol says. “With the new adaptive management plan, we can try to repair the relationship.”
But the rekindled relationship doesn’t please everyone.
“I think [the new plan] had to do with direct pressure from the caving community,” says Mollie Matteson, conservation advocate at the Center for Biological Diversity. Her nonprofit is filing an appeal against the recent Forest Service decision, arguing that it favors recreationists over bats.
“We’re not just recreationists,” Ryan says. Cavers are driven by a desire to explore hidden ecosystems, he says, to better understand and preserve them.
Matteson says that cavers never stopped caving, despite the closures.
“The Forest Service has decided that since some people break the law, just to get rid of the law,” she says.
Spring Cave in the White River National Forest | Photo by Richard Rhinehart
But she explains that bat protection is critical. Without bats to devour insects, farms are in trouble. And the deadly spores can piggy-back on cavers — it’s probably how they hitched from Europe to New York in 2006.
Cavers dispute their role in spreading the disease, and Bristol calls it a politically charged issue.
Matteson says the claim that cavers wouldn’t spread the fungus to other caves is “inconceivable.” Laboratory work found spores on a caver’s gear, but that didn’t prove that trudging a couple spores into another cave would infect it, Rhinehart says.
The main transmission is bat-to-bat, agree the cavers, scientists and Matteson.
“But the risk [of human transmission] is there, and to dismiss it is pretty self-serving,” Matteson argues.
The risk is mitigated, Lenzo says, by the decontamination procedures that will be required.
“We’re taking no chances with cave equipment,” he says.
Cavers say the decontamination procedures have already been adopted. Matteson is dubious, she says, because she’s heard how time-consuming they are. She says she doesn’t believe decontamination — or anything else — will stop the inevitable: The fungus is coming.
“This is about buying time,” she says, referring to the time needed for scientists to race to find a cure. “We recommend blanket closures. We think the Forest Service should go back to the way it was three years ago.”
Cavers aren’t surprised by the nonprofit’s reaction. They have clashed with the Center for Biological Diversity before.
“We share the angle of wanting to see as much done as possible to help bats,” Bristol says. “We just have different opinions about the best way to accomplish that.”
Matteson acknowledges that the disease hasn’t spread past Oklahoma.
“Maybe that’s because what they did [by closing caves] is working,” she says.
But without the regional closures, Boulder can’t buy time for its local bats alone.
“I applaud Boulder’s protective policy toward bats,” she says. “But if all the caves on Forest Service land and BLM land are open, then it’s not going to be protective for one little land unit to have caves closed.”
Boulder’s bubble of closures can be attributed to the nonprofit Matteson works for, the Center for Biological Diversity, according to Ryan and Rhinehart. When the cave closures became year-round in 2010, Rhinehart contacted Boulder Open Space. He says OSMP staff ended their discussions by reciting quotes from the center’s press releases.
“They’re big admirers of the Center for Biological Diversity,” he says of Boulder Open Space staff.
And the center recommends buffers.
Boulder is still following its direction, Ryan says. If you enter a buffer around a cave in Boulder, you face jail time.
Elsewhere in Colorado, most caves are expected to be open to the public this summer — if the Forest Service policy isn’t changed by the lawsuit from the Center for Biological Diversity.