SPRINGFIELD, IL – The Illinois Department of Natural Resources (IDNR) is closing state-owned and managed caves that support bat populations as part of a national effort to slow the spread of the mysterious white-nose syndrome affecting bats in the northeastern United States.
The closure will be in effect until further notice. Among the caves that will no longer be open to visitors is the Illinois Caverns site in Monroe County in southwestern Illinois. Caves located at five other IDNR sites are also involved in the closure order. The caves are being closed to all visitor access in an effort to prevent humans from spreading white-nose syndrome among hibernating bat populations. These actions follow recommendations of the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service (USFWS), who along with other state and federal agencies have closed several caves throughout the United States as a result of this disease.
White-nose syndrome (WNS) is a new wildlife disease of unknown origin that has killed hundreds of thousands of bats across the northeastern U.S. during the past three years and continues to spread. It has recently been detected in Missouri and threatens to stretch rapidly to other portions of the Midwest (including Illinois), home to several species of bats that are on the federal list of threatened and endangered species, as well as some of the largest populations of hibernating bats in the country.
“The evidence collected to date indicates that human activity in caves and abandoned mines may be assisting the spread of white-nose syndrome,” said IDNR Director Marc Miller. “The State of Illinois through the IDNR, working in conjunction with the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service and the U.S. Forest Service, is taking steps to reduce the risks of further spread of WNS. This will involve the complete closure of all IDNR-owned and managed caves for the foreseeable future.”
The primary agent of concern with white-nose syndrome is a fungus that is new to science and may possibly have been unintentionally introduced into the United States. This fungus grows best in the cold and wet conditions common to caves and abandoned mines and likely can be transported inadvertently from site-to-site on the boots and gear of cave visitors.
“We hope that slowing the spread of WNS will buy time that is critical to confirming the cause of this disease and potentially implementing management actions to minimize the impacts to native bat populations,” said IDNR Endangered Species Manager Joseph Kath. “Scientists are working to determine the cause of WNS. Whatever is causing WNS may remain in caves where bats hibernate even when bats are not present, and we are concerned that people may inadvertently carry WNS out of the cave with them.”
The IDNR is implementing the cave closure immediately and will review the order on a quarterly basis.
“We recognize that this complete cave closure effort will require sacrifice from the caving community and other citizens, and we regret this inconvenience. However, the observed devastation to bat populations, exceeding 90 percent mortality at many affected sites, and the evidence for human-assisted spread justifies that we exercise an abundance of caution in managing activities that impact caves and bats,” Kath added. “These measures will not be a cure for WNS, but they are necessary to help slow the spread of this affliction and to reduce the risks to bat populations in North America.”
The IDNR does not have the authority to close caves on lands other than those which are owned or managed by the Department. The IDNR is encouraging local units of government, public organizations, and private landowners throughout Illinois to follow the Department's example and immediately close caves on their property and prohibit any human access in order to help prevent or slow down the spread of WNS. IDNR biologists can provide advice to private landowners regarding proper cave closure.
Questions regarding WNS and the cave closure effort should be directed to Joseph Kath, IDNR Endangered Species Manager, at 217/782-6384 or by e-mail to Joe.Kath@illinois.gov.