The Mid-Atlantic Karst Conservancy, Pennsylvania Game Commission and Department of Conservation and Natural Resources hosted a program on White Nose Syndrome, a mysterious fungus which is killing hundreds of thousands of bats in the northeastern United States. It was held at 7 p.m. Thursday, April 30, at the Winnie Palmer Nature Reserve, Saint Vincent College, Latrobe. Information about WNS and cave closures were discussed. The program was free and open to the public. Lisa Hall, the Director of Cave Studies at Laurel Caverns, Fayette County, attended to discuss how the caverns management will be handling visitation for 2009.
White Nose Syndrome was first reported in Albany, New York, three years ago, and has spread to northeastern and central Pennsylvania, Virginia, West Virginia, and other states. The mortality rate is more than 90 percent. The syndrome itself does not kill the bats, and it is not certain if the fungus which is prevalent on infected bats kills them. The syndrome causes bats to wake during hibernation, when there are no food sources available, and as a result, the bats use up their energy stores and die. The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Services has recommended that persons not visit wild caves in the affected states, even during non-hibernation periods, until further notice. Show caves, such as Laurel Caverns and Lincoln Caverns and Whisper Rocks (Huntingdon County), are not impacted by the moratorium.
The DCNR and the PGC manage four caves in Westmoreland (Coon Cave, Lemon Hole), Fayette (Barton Cave) and Indiana (Strangford Cave) counties for nongame species. All of those caves have been gated. The Mid-Atlantic Karst Conservancy owns caves in Huntingdon County, Pa., Pocahontas County, WV, and leases and manages more than three dozen caves in Westmoreland County which are privately owned, including Bear Cave.
Coon Cave, Lemon Hole and Barton Cave, all in the Forbes State Forest, were gated in 2006 by the PGC and DNR to prevent human disturbance of bats during hibernation. The gates were locked from October 1st to May 31st for this purpose, but were open the remainder of the year for recreation, according to Stauffer, who has been a wildlife biologist with the Pennsylvania Department of Conservation and Natural Resources, Bureau of Forestry since 2002. She works primarily with non-game species. However, none of the gates will open in 2009 due to ongoing studies. Stauffer and Turner will provide an update on those studies during their presentation.
In early 2008, it was becoming apparent that WNS was spreading from New York to surrounding states (Vermont, MA, Connecticut). Biologists and cavers in PA began to closely monitor caves for any bats showing signs of WNS. Turner, currently a Wildlife Biologist with the Wildlife Diversity Section of the Pennsylvania Game Commission, has been assisting with all the major WNS investigators performing work in Pennsylvania. He helps them with the access to caves and mines and with collecting the samples they need to obtain. He is also a principle investigator on several projects. Hired in May 2004 as the Endangered Mammal Specialist, his primary focus is to survey, monitor, and manage the state’s protected mammals.
Turner, Stauffer, Charlie Eichelberger of the Western PA Conservancy and MAKC volunteer cavers discovered a fungus on bats in Barton cave in 2008. Stauffer noted that the bats appeared to be otherwise healthy, and the ones that had the fungus were collected for testing. As a precaution, it was decided by DCNR and the PGC biologists that the Barton Cave gate would not be opened to the public in 2008. Coon and Lemon Hole cave gates were open to the public in 2008.
Turner added that biologists also observed a suspicious fungus in some bats in the Hartman mine, permanently gated and not open to the public, in Canoe Creek State Park. He reported that the fungus found on bats collected from Barton Cave and Hartman mine in 2008 was not the fungus associated with WNS.
Turner noted that in early 2009, the first cases of PA bats with WNS were discovered in Mifflin County. Since that time WNS has also been confirmed in Luzerne, Lackawanna, and Centre counties. New sites were found in West Virginia and northern VA as well.
Biologists visited Lemon Hole and Coon caves in January of 2009, and no signs of WNS were apparent. Barton was visited in March and the bats appeared to be healthy, Stauffer added.
After high mortality of bats at several of the WNS PA sites, and until further information regarding the cause and spread of WNS comes to light, DCNR and PGC officials decided to keep Barton, Lemon Hole, and Coon caves closed for the entire year in 2009. MAKC will not open Bear Cave or its Trout Run Woods Preserve on April 15 as scheduled.
Spokespersons for all three organizations noted that the closures are not meant to be permanent and the cave closures will be re-evaluated as additional information becomes available. Stauffer said that the closures are necessary to aide in the collection of baseline data in healthy hibernating bats, particularly in Barton Cave. This research is being conducted by Dr. DeeAnn Reeder of Bucknell University and Turner. The DCNR Bureau of Forestry Research Committee approved $50,725 as match to a State Wildlife grant in support of WNS research, she added.
“Members of the Mid-Atlantic Karst Conservancy wholeheartedly support this research into finding the cause, and potentially a solution, to this devastating syndrome which is impacting our bats,” said spokeswoman Kim Metzgar. “Our members are ready and willing to assist researchers working on these projects in any way we can.
Due to the seriousness of the situation, and due to how quickly the situation can change, persons interested in visiting our preserves should check our web page, www.karst.org, for the most up-to-date information on access.”
Metzgar added that “there are nine show caves operating in Pennsylvania which will remain open to tourists. The caving community encourages persons to visit these caves rather than wild caves until more can be learned about White Nose Syndrome. Links to these caves can be found at www.pacaves.com.”
Hall reported that Laurel Caverns will still be open for three hour. wild cave trips. “We are however, closely following the recommendations set forth by the USFWS,” she added. “We are asking that anyone coming to the cave wear clean, never-been-in-a-cave-before, clothes. Even if your cave cloths are washed, please don’t wear them. This also includes all cave gear, packs, boots, and helmets. The caverns management will provide helmets.”
Additionally, she noted that everyone entering and exiting the cave will need to walk through a shoe bath also which consists of a 10 percent bleach solution. The cave is open on weekends in April, and will open full-time in May.
Turner is a native of Dallas, Pennsylvania. He received his B.S. in Biology at Wilkes University and then moved on to receive a M.S. of Wildlife and Fisheries Biology degree in 2001 from Frostburg State University, Maryland. His thesis investigated how populations of Utah and Gunnison’s prairie dogs responded and recovered from outbreaks of sylvatic (bubonic) plague.
He can be found traveling all over the state monitoring the state’s endangered northern flying squirrel, crawling underground counting and identifying hibernating bats, flying low elevation at night conducting migratory telemetry on federally endangered Indiana bats, identifying and monitoring maternity colonies of Indiana bats, and conducting research that investigates the interaction of bats and wind energy. Research priorities have currently been shifted to focus investigations on White Nose Syndrome (WNS). Examples include the multi-state investigation of the arousal patterns of hibernating bats in WNS affected and clean sites, following the migration and summer survival of WNS affected bats, investigating the reproductive changes in WNS affected bats, and a pilot study examining the effects of a fungal inhibitor on hibernating bats affected by WNS.
Stauffer has B.S. and M.S. degrees from the Pennsylvania State University in Wildlife and Fisheries Science. She has worked with the Environmental Protection Agency, Office of Wetlands and Waterways in Washington, DC, and for the Audubon Society at the Audubon Camp in Maine as a marine biology instructor. More recently, she worked as an environmental consultant for Gannett Fleming Engineers in Harrisburg, and as the County Inventory Coordinator for The Nature Conservancy, PA Science Office in Middletown, PA.