Hello all MOcavers,
I wanted to clarify some things about our WNS planning at the Missouri Department of Conservation.
WNS is not in Missouri yet. We are checking certain hibernacula this winter--actually most of that is being done by Tony Elliott, my fellow cave/bat biologist from Kirksville, and Derek Shiels, our cave biology assistant. We follow the WNS disinfection rules.
As Mick reported, we are working on our MDC WNS Action Plan, which governs the 290 MDC caves we are responsible for. Actually, we have not closed all 80 known MDC bat caves yet, but that is in the plan once a "WNS trigger" occurs, which would be WNS reliably reported or confirmed in Missouri or an adjacent state. We are working on refining our tiered approach to further triggers, in which we would further control access to other caves. So, the exact sequence of closures is not determined yet.
We did totally close Smittle Cave to permit caving recently. No more permits in the spring and fall for the forseeable future, the primary reason being that up to 500 people were going there, under permits, every year, some from out of state, and we could not adequately prevent the possible accidental introduction of the WNS fungus, Geomyces destructans, with that kind of situation. Smittle Cave is an important site for endangered gray bats year-round, and other bat species. We have seen a decline in the gray bats over the last two years too, so we were concerned about that being caused by too much visitation anyway.
Before I joined MDC in 1998 the official MDC policy was that MDC caves are closed to caving unless signed open or you had a proper permit, which could be granted by certain signs. That was widely misunderstood and ignored by many. With the threat of WNS coming, we think it is necessary to emphasize this existing rule, which is in the Missouri Wildlife Code, adopted by the Conservation Commission many years ago. One change we did make years ago was to remove cave locations from our area brochures, which I changed as MDC's cave biologist. So, we tried to regulate cave access to three types of caves: Class 1 (open if you abide by certain rules), Class 2 (permit access), and Class 3 (closed except for research). These are the same three classes used by the other state and federal agencies in Missouri. With our new emphasis we will be changing our signs to clarify this "closed unless signed open" requirement, especially if WNS hits. But we do not plan to close all of our caves in one move unless it is warranted. We will do it in steps.
Even though we still have our old signs, we have asked our area managers to require that WNS disinfection be required to enter all MDC caves. So, we would appreciate the cooperation of organized cavers, and perhaps y'all could help by informing and teaching others who go in caves.
Some people are questioning the value of disinfecting caving gear, and say that WNS will arrive via the bats anyway. I strongly disagree with that idea. There is strong circumstantial evidence that WNS spreads via both humans and bats, and we need to give our bats the best chance we can. Six specis can be infected so far. We hope to slow the spread of WNS and buy time for our bats and caves in case researchers can come up with an effective treatment method soon. The antifungal, terbinafine, is being researched now.
Some recent news: WNS was confirmed in one bat, Myotis myotis, in a French cave. This revives a hypothesis that WNS came from Europe somehow, possibly via caving gear, and that our bats are less resistant to it. That is just one hypothesis. Other news: A recent test showed that healthy little brown bats got infected after they were introduced into a WNS-infected site in the eastern USA; the site was by then absent of bats and screened to keep the new bats from exchanging. So, once a cave is infected, bats can get WNS from the environment. Also, we recently learned that WNS-infected bats in Pennsylvania had a much higher mortality rate in a site where the cave gate was breached and humans disturbed the bats, than there was in a nondisturbed WNS site. So, human disturbance of bats is still a major factor in their demise, even more so with WNS. Therefore, you can expect to see more cave gates being built on important bat caves, and more enforcement. Those will not solve the entire WNS problem, but there is no one method that will solve the whole problem. We intend to do our part for now, hoping that brilliant scientists will figure out what we can do later on.
We established a Missouri WNS Working Group of biologists, land managers, cave owners and cavers at a meeting on Feb. 5. The purpose of the group will be to exchange information as it comes out from the Fish & Wildlife Service, eastern state agencies, scientists, and our group. I will not be sending out much information until we have completed our MDC WNS Action Plan, we hope by March, maybe later. Many agencies and landowners want to see the MDC plan and possibly follow some of the elements in it, but we do not expect them to simply adopt MDC's approach. They have the right to adopt their own plans. However, MDC does intend to lead an effort to develop a statewide WNS plan, which will mostly be information-sharing and cooperative planning. MDC has state constitutional authority to regulate fish and wildlife in Missouri, so we take that responsibility seriously and hope to help all to work on this problem.
Cavers, master naturalists, college classes, stream teams and others qualified in caving may be able to participate in a cave stewardship program, which MDC hopes to initiate later on. We are not ready quite yet, and it is not really funded yet. Trained cave stewards could help MDC and others by learning disinfection, monitoring abnormal winter bat activity at selected cave entrances, and checking other things under MDC permits. This will not be the style of caving that everyone likes, but I know serious cavers who are already planning to get involved in this.
I would like to compliment CRF, MSS, Chouteau Grotto, Hi Lonesome Master Naturalists, Springfield Plateau Grotto, Kansas City Area Grotto and many other cavers who are preparing wholeheartedly for WNS. We still need skilled cavers to map, photograph and document caves, bats and other resources. We will all have to be more cautious about entering bat caves in the future, including common caves with eastern pipistrelles (tri-colored bats), as they are susceptible too.
Missouri Department of Conservation