LANDER -- New information on bat populations and habitat will be used in evaluating whether caves in the region closed to public access three years ago because of concern over "white nose syndrome" will be reopened in July.
U.S. Forest Service officials closed all caves and abandoned mines on Forest Service land in the region in July 2009 in an effort to protect bats from the deadly fungus, said Steve Sagin, public affairs officer for the service's Rocky Mountain region.
Some caves on Bureau of Land Management lands remain open, said Martin Grenier, a nongame mammal biologist with the Wyoming Game and Fish Department.
White nose syndrome doesn't impact humans but they can spread it by carrying spores on shoes and clothing. The fungus came to the eastern U.S. from Europe about 10 years ago, said Chris Servheen, regional white nose syndrome coordinator for the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service. He said it likely was carried in by a human. The fungus has been found as far west as Oklahoma.
Bats have no resistance to white nose syndrome because it's a nonnnative pathogen. If a colony gets infected, it can have "severe" effects on some species, Servheen said.
Infected bats wake more often during hibernation, said Kerry Burns, forest wildlife biologist with the Black Hills National Forest. As a result, the bats don't store the energy necessary to support the extra waking hours and essentially starve to death.
"Wiping out whole colonies of bats or much of one species can have serious ecological impacts," Servheen said.
The closures in the West are precautionary. Research is ongoing to determine where bats actually are living and hibernating. There also is an effort to educate those who recreate in caves, reminding them to decontaminate clothing and equipment, Servheen said.
Wyoming bat populations are much smaller than those back East, Grenier said. Some sites have only 100 bats.
The past few years have yielded a better understanding of Wyoming's bats, but there is still a lot that isn't known, Grenier said. Researchers are trying to assess if Wyoming caves are even conducive to the fungus.
Researchers recently started deploying data loggers, which collect temperature and humidity in various caves throughout the state. The dime-sized devices will collect data for about a year, Grenier said.
The ideal growth temperature for the fungus is 35 to 50 degrees, with humidity greater than 90 percent, he said.
Biologists are also trying to count bats, as well as study caves commonly visited by people.
"Wyoming actually has a really rich cave inventory," Grenier said.
Yet there isn't a lot of information on people using the caves in the state for recreation.
The Shoshone National Forest has nine known caves and several abandoned mines impacted by the closures, said Susan Douglas, public affairs specialist with the forest. Most of the caves are on the southern end of the forest near Dubois.
Only one, "Spooky Cave," has an official name, she said.
There were no public objections when it and the other caves were closed, Douglas said.
There are several species of bats found in the forest, although all of the colonies are small in size. The forest is trying to survey all the known caves, which will probably take several years, she said.
Biologists in the forest are creating bat-friendly gates, which allow bats in and out, but keep people away. They also are using devices to gather data on cave temperature and humidity, she said.
It's time-intensive because most bats can't wear radio collars for tracking because they are so small, Douglas said.
The decision to reopen caves will likely come from the regional office with input from forest officials, she said.
"We'll probably err on the side of caution for the bats," she said.