Many species of hibernating bats in North America are facing an unprecedented threat from the Pseudogymnoascus destructans pathogen that creates White Nose Syndrome. Deadly to more than 95 percent of bats that become infected with the easily-spread fungus, millions of bats in central and eastern United States and Canada have perished in the decade since the fungus was first documented in New York state. Many species die after becoming infected, waking during their long winter hibernation and then starving to death owing to a lack of food.
With concerns for additional bat species in the western United States becoming infected, federal agencies have taken steps to help protect bats from accidental exposure to the pathogen. Although bats mostly spread the pathogen through direct contact with each other, there is potential for the fungus to be spread to new locations by other animals and even humans.
In July 2010, Region 2 of the US Forest Service in Lakewood, Colorado took the unusual emergency action to close all public caves on Forest lands in Colorado, most of Wyoming, and the Black Hills of South Dakota. This closure order was later rescinded in August 2013, with an order that requires all visitors to undeveloped public caves on Forest lands to register with the USFS prior to a planned cave trip. This free registration system using a downloaded PDF-format form has helped provide the Forest Service with data as to the destinations of cavers, the frequency of trips and the number of cavers participating in the trips. Such data will be useful in coming years as management plans are developed for caves and procedures created for the potential arrival of the pathogen to the West.
As a part of this action plan, the US Forest Service has closed selected caves that host large colonies of bats on seasonal schedules. These closures are based upon hibernation, maternity and swarming activities. Some caves have two or more activities, which result in longer closures. Colorado caves affected by seasonal or annual closures are located within the White River National Forest. For a full listing, download the PDF-format closure order from the Forest.
The Bureau of Land Management in Colorado has also an ongoing program to better manage their caves and expand scientific knowledge about significant bat colonies on Bureau lands. The BLM is actively seeking additional scientific studies about caves and bat colonies on their lands and is working with local caving groups.
Visitors to Colorado caves are required to undertake current decontamination protocol and procedures to avoid the accidental spread of any fungus pathogens between caves. While Pseudogymnoascus destructans is not documented in the Rocky Mountain states, including Colorado, it has been found in the Texas panhandle region, far eastern Nebraska and the Arkansas/Oklahoma border region, as well as western Washington state.