Caves located on state lands in Tennessee will remain closed in an effort to slow the spread of White Nose Syndrome (WNS) among the state’s bat population.
During the upcoming year, state and federal agencies and non-governmental organizations will consult with recreational caving organizations to determine how to best manage the spread of this disease while maintaining high quality recreation. Biologists will also continue to work with researchers to better understand WNS and determine the best ways to mitigate the effects of WNS on Tennessee’s bats.
State land holding agencies including the Tennessee Wildlife Resources Agency, the Tennessee Department of Environment and Conservation, and the Tennessee Department of Agriculture initially agreed to close all caves on public property beginning July 1, 2009. An annual review of these closures is conducted every year. The Nature Conservancy has also agreed to follow the state’s lead to extend the closure on all caves located on Conservancy property.
The 2009 action closed public access to all caves, sinkholes, tunnels and abandoned mines on land owned by the TWRA, the Tennessee Department of Environment and Conservation and the TDA Division of Forestry. The Great Smoky Mountains National Park, U.S. Forest Service and Tennessee Valley Authority also closed caves on their lands to public access. Today's joint announcement is an extension of those closures.
The cave closures do not affect privately-owned show caves in Tennessee which are popular recreational and vacation destinations for Tennesseans and visitors to our state. Tennessee’s show caves provide visitors with a great place to discover nature and learn about bats and the unique ecosystems of caves.
White Nose Syndrome, or WNS, is named for a white fungus that appears on the faces, ears, wings and feet of hibernating bats. Scientists are trying to determine the effects and manner of spread of this disease. Once a colony is affected, the fungus spreads rapidly and may kill 90 or more percent of bats at the hibernation site in just two years. The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service has estimated that since its discovery in 2006 in the northeastern United States that at least 5 million bats may have died from WNS.
Scientists believe WNS is primarily spread bat-to-bat as they cluster in caves and mines, but that it may also be unknowingly transferred from one cave or mine to another on the footwear, clothing and gear of humans visiting caves. Infected caves and mines may not show obvious signs of its presence.
Tennessee’s WNS positive counties include Blount, Carter, Cumberland, Franklin, Hamilton, Hancock, Hawkins, Montgomery, Stewart, Sullivan, and Van Buren. These counties all have at least one cave that has tested positive for WNS. Fentress County still remains WNS suspect as only spores of Geomyces destructans were found.
The partner agencies/organizations strongly encourage recreational cavers to utilize the latest decontamination procedures when visiting caves on private lands. Decontamination procedures and information on WNS effects on bats can be found at http://www.fws.gov/whitenosesyndrome/. Scientists that are conducting important research in caves on state lands should consult the responsible agency for access to any caves of importance to their research.