Officials monitoring caves for bat disease


LITTLE ROCK — Two caves in northern Arkansas are being monitored after the discovery of a low level of fungus that causes a disease fatal to bats, wildlife officials said Monday.

The fungus that causes white-nose syndrome was discovered in a cave at Devil’s Den State Park in Washington County and a private cave located in southern Baxter County, in swab samples taken from hibernating bats in February 2012 and January 2013.

White-nose syndrome is thought to be transmitted primarily from bat to bat or substrate to bat, but fungal spores may be inadvertently carried to caves by humans on clothing and caving gear. The syndrome is not known to pose a threat to humans, pets or livestock.

Bats with WNS may exhibit unusual behavior during cold winter months, including flying outside during the day and clustering near the entrances of caves and mines where they hibernate.

The disease is associated with massive bat mortality in the northeastern and mid-Atlantic United States. Although exact numbers are difficult to determine, biologists estimate that losses may exceed five million bats since 2007.

No bat deaths due to white-nose syndrome are known to have occurred in Arkansas, officials said.

The characteristic white nose seen on bats with the fungus on them was not present on surveys from the two Arkansas caves and the fungus was only present in microscopic amounts, officials said.

In April 2010, the state parks department closed Devil’s Den Cave and Ice Box Cave at Devil’s Den State Park, and War Eagle Cave at Withrow Springs State Park, to the public as precautions to protect the caves from the possibility of contamination from white-nose syndrome. Earlier, in May 2009, Farmer’s Cave and Big Ear Cave at Devil’s Den closed as precautionary measures.

While Blanchard Springs Caverns near Mountain View remains open, all other caves on the Ozark National Forest were closed in 2009. Decontamination procedures were set in place at Blanchard Springs Caverns at that time as recommended by the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service. The procedures include a pre-screening questionnaire for cave visitors, decontamination measures for visitors having visited a cave in a state positive for white-nose syndrome, and limits on items that can be carried into the cave.

“Safeguarding natural resources is an integral part of Arkansas State Parks’ mission,” State Parks Director Greg Butts said in a news release Monday. “We know the public understands why we’re working with other state and federal agencies to do all we can to protect Arkansas’s caves and the bat species that inhabit them.”