There has been much media attention of late because of bats becoming afflicted with a new disease called white nose syndrome, or WNS. This disease threatens hibernating bats, and causes a white fungus to grow on their noses, ears, and wings. The affected bats leave their hibernation roosts in winter when their food source is unavailable and ultimately starve to death. This is important because bats are a major predator on insects, not just the ones that bother people but the ones that eat our crops. Bat speciesaffected by WNS are long-lived and have only one baby bat per year. Bat populations don't change widely in numbers over time, so it's unlikely the WNS-affected species will recover quickly.
WNS was first seen in New York state in the winter of 2005-2006. Since then it has affected bats in New Hampshire, Vermont, Massachusetts, Connecticut, Pennsylvania, New Jersey, West Virginia, and Virginia. It has not been found in Arkansas or even west of the Mississippi River. Scientists are still studying how the disease is transmitted. When the fungus was first discovered, there was some thought that it might have been introduced to caves by people. Consequently, caves and mines in the eastern portion of the National Forests were all closed. Blanchard Springs Caverns was the sole exception. At Blanchard we have a large hibernating bat population and a smaller summer population, and we did not/do not want to endanger our bats. But most of our visitors are very unlikely to go caving. Those that do wear specific clothing and gear, unlikely to be worn on a public tour of a show cave. So we are still giving tours at Blanchard.
We have altered our Wild Cave Tours, however. Before WNS, visitors could wear pretty much what they wanted, but they had to use our caving gear such as helmets and lights. These days we supply coveralls that stay at the Caverns, and we still supply all the caving gear. All visitors bring their own boots, and they clean their boots before and after the caving trip. We clean all the coveralls and gear used on the tour, and all coveralls and gear stay here at the Caverns, never used in another cave.
We also have an ongoing effort to educate people about bats and WNS. There is a current display with flyers and handouts about the disease. We have also done school programs about bats and WNS. We have sent out many news releases on it, too. We keep updates on what is happening with the investigation into WNS. Currently there are studies to diagnose WNS; a specific test for detection of WNS; how the diease is transmitted; if the fungus is the only cause of WNS. Cave and sediment surveys are being done, bat ecology is being studied, and forecasting the spread of WNS is ongoing.
We urge people to get educated about WNS. The US Fish and Wildlife has a good site, www.fws.gov/northeast.white-nose.html, which has articles on WNS; Bat Conservation International, www.batcon.org, also has links and articles. Please don't go into any caves or mines on national Forest Service land - they are still closed. And contact someone if you have questions - the Forest Service, Arkansas Game and Fish Commission, or US Fish and Wildlife. Bats are too important to jeopardize.