White-nose syndrome: Bat disease a step closer to Minnesota caves

Rob DriesleinYou’ll see a cute lil’ column on Page 3 of this week’s Outdoor News by yours truly detailing a recent visit to Mystery Cave in southeastern Minnesota. Per my column, took the family down over Memorial Day, and we had a great time. In  a follow-up interview on Monday, I chatted with Cave Manager Warren Netherton, and we discussed white-nose syndrome and how wildlife watchers are lucky it hasn’t reached Minnesota yet.

White-nose syndrome, as detailed in my print column, is a fungus that kills bats during their winter hibernation. It first appeared in New York in 2006 and since has spread across the eastern United States and Canada – wiping out 90 percent-plus of the bats around most caves and mines in the process. We’re talking upwards of 6.5 million dead bats across the continent so far.

As of Monday, when we spoke, Netherton noted that the disease hadn’t yet arrived in Minnesota, Wisconsin or Illinois, but he said it did exist 350 miles from Mystery Cave in several northern Missouri counties.

Well, the Friday, June 15 print edition of Outdoor News had no sooner cleared the press when I received a release today from the Wisconsin DNR. Seems the folks at Maquoketa Caves State Park in east-central Iowa have found white-nose. That’s just 30 miles from southwestern Wisconsin, which also contains some caves, and a big jump closer to southern Minnesota. A simple Google distance search shows Maquoketa Caves State Park a mere 125 miles from Mystery.

A press release from the Iowa DNR says the white-nose fungus was found in March via a swab taken during sampling on hibernating bats. The testing was done as part of a national study and effort to stop the spread of the disease. A total of 15 bats were swabbed at Dancehall Cave with the very low level of the fungus detected on only one bat.

“The level is so low it’s difficult to say what this detection means,” said Daryl Howell of the Iowa DNR. “It may be at a level low enough that it may not infect the bats at all or it could be just the beginning of an outbreak that we will see in the future.”

Whatever it means, management at the Iowa caves says it will “now go from trying to prevent the fungus from getting into the cave to trying to prevent it from getting out.

“To that end, the (Iowa) DNR will be adding mats with disinfection solution that people will walk across after leaving the caves to decrease the potential of spreading the fungus to other caves and bat populations. People who have recently visited other caves will also walk across the disinfection mats prior to going into Maquoketa Caves.”

Made some calls on Wednesday to see if the Minnesota DNR planned any changes to its Mystery Cave protocol as a result of white-nose creeping (or flying) closer. Cave Manager Netherton had just heard the news from Iowa himself, and his staff hadn’t even begun discussing whether it would result in any protocol changes at Mystery.

In my interview with Netherton on Monday, he was skeptical that restricting people or access will have much effect on the spread of white-nose, and he remained so today. Bats typically gather in large numbers and spread the fungus among themselves. Though he said he’d personally question the long-term effectiveness of disinfecting shoes (via mats) to spread the disease, at least it’s an effort to do something. Bottom line, it’s too bad white-nose took a closer step toward the Gopher State.

“That’s bad news,” he said. “I’m sure we’ll conversations internally about this.”

As an aside, nearby Niagara Cave in Harmony, Minn., doesn’t have bats, so white-nose isn’t a concern there.

You can read the complete Iowa DNR release from today here.

And here’s the complete Wisconsin release.

To read everything you’d ever want to know about white-nose syndrome, check out the National Speleological Society’s information page.

Categories: Rob Drieslein

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