Oregon Caves tries to ward off bat disease

A bat with White Nose Syndrome. Photo by Al Hicks, New York Department of Environmental ConservationAl Hicks, New York Department o

If you plan on venturing into the Oregon Caves, don't wear clothing worn in any bat hangout east of the Rocky Mountains within the past six years.

That also goes for footwear or hiking gear worn into a hibernacula, a place where bats hibernate.

If you go

What: Oregon Caves Community Open House, offering free tours of the caves and chateau lodge

When: 10 a.m. to 4 p.m. Saturday, May 7

Where: Oregon Caves National Monument, about 20 miles east of Cave Junction

Advisory: In addition to wearing hiking clothes and sturdy footwear, visitors should bring a jacket or sweater. Cave temperature averages 44 degrees. Children less than 42 inches tall are not permitted

Suggested donation: Can of food which will be given to the needy

For more information, call 541-592-2100, ext. 2262, or visit http://www.nps.gov/orca

"If we don't screen visitors for this, and the white-nose syndrome is found here, we could have to close down the caves," stressed John Roth, a natural resource specialist at Oregon Caves National Monument.

"That's a decision that could be out of our hands, so this is a very high priority for us," he added, noting closure could result from a species becoming threatened or endangered because of the bat-killing disease.

He was referring to a white fungus of unknown origin that has been devastating colonial bat populations since it was first discovered in 2006 in a cave near Albany, N.Y. The cold-loving fungus invades the skin of bats, often focusing on the mucus membrane, hence its name.

Scientists have dubbed the disease Geomyces destructans. Since its discovery, the white-nose syndrome has infected caves, mines and other bat dwellings as far west as Oklahoma, killing more than 1 million, according to the National Park Service.

The syndrome hasn't gotten its deadly nose inside the caves, and the agency intends to keep it out.

With the annual open house at the caves set for Saturday, visitors are being warned that everyone going into the caves this year will be screened for anything worn or carried into bat habitat east of the Rockies as well as in Europe in the last six years. The fungus has been identified in Europe but has yet to manifest itself as a disease, Roth noted.

"We asked everybody if they have been to a cave or any place where it has been found," he said. "We're making the assumption that people are simply not going to lie about something like this."

After all, he observed, few people would want to be responsible for deliberately contaminating the caves, which draw more than 50,000 people each year.

Since the caves reopened for the 2011 season, several visitors have acknowledged they had previously visited areas that were suspect for the disease, he said. A bleach solution was used to decontaminate their footwear and other items that had potentially been exposed, he noted.

Spores from the fungus that causes the syndrome can remain on clothing, gear and footwear even after they have been washed, according to scientists.

There are several bat species, including the Townsend bat and the big-eared bat, that call the caves home, Roth said.

"If we get it in our caves, the Townsend and big-eared bats would be decimated because they are colonial," he said. "We're not sure what would happen to some of the other bats but we would lose a fair portion of our bats."

In addition to potentially decimating a species native to the caves, the disease also would remove the top predator of mosquitoes from the monument, he said.

"Bats are the main eaters of mosquitoes in our area," Roth said, adding that mosquitoes can be carriers of the West Nile virus known to infect humans.

"From a broader perspective, we have hundreds of species — a whole bunch of bugs — across the United States that are dependent on bat guano," he said. "Some of these species are extremely restrictive. So the cascading effect of losing these bats could be tremendous."

Scientists continue to research the syndrome in hopes of determining how it kills a bat and how to stop it, he said.

"This fungi lives on skin where it is prevalent and normally eats dead skin," he said. "This is the first one we actually know of that eats live cells. The mucus membrane is attacked the most."

However, the white-nose syndrome doesn't appear to be a problem with bats that dwell in trees, he said. The monument also supports a population of tree-dwelling bats.

Thousands of fossilized bat bones discovered in European caves have sparked speculation in the science community that the syndrome was once found there, he said.

"The speculation is that white-nose hit there long ago," he said.

Meanwhile, the staff at Oregon Caves plans to do everything it can to prevent the syndrome from entering local caverns.

"There are places in the east where the fatality rate is over 95 percent," he said, reiterating, "We are taking this very seriously."

For more information on the syndrome relating to the Oregon Caves National Monument, check out www.nps.gov/orca/naturescience/white-nose.htm.

Reach reporter Paul Fattig at 541-776-4496 or email him at pfattig@mailtribune.com.

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