Fulford Cave near Eagle to close | VailDaily.com

Fulford Cave near Eagle to close

Sarah Mausolf
smausolf@vaildaily.com
Vail, CO Colorado

HL cave 4 KA 09-03-08

EAGLE COUNTY, Colorado – Fulford Cave will be closing for a year to protect bats from a deadly fungus, the U.S. Forest Service announced Tuesday.

The Forest Service has closed some 1,500 caves and 23,000 abandoned mines on its federal lands throughout Colorado for a year to prevent the spread of white nose syndrome.

The syndrome has already killed a million bats in the northeastern U.S. and is slowly spreading west, said Tony Dixon, deputy regional director for the Forest Service in the Rocky Mountains.

While the fungus has not yet reached Colorado, Dixon said the syndrome has been found 300 miles away in western Oklahoma. The Forest Service has closed most caves and abandoned mines on federal lands in Colorado, Nebraska, Kansas, South Dakota and Wyoming to visitors, Dixon announced Tuesday.

“This is a response to mitigate and slow the spread,” he said.

Dixon said humans can pick up the fungus on their clothing. They can spread the fungus if they fail to fully clean their clothes before visiting another cave, he said. Researchers are unsure exactly how the fungus spreads but some think it spreads mainly from bat to bat.

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White Nose Syndrome has a 90- to 100-percent kill rate once it infects the bats, Dixon said. One theory claims the bats are dying from starvation after the fungus stirs them from their hibernation.

Southeast of Eagle, Fulford Cave in the White River National Forest sees its share of both bat and human traffic. Richard Rhinehart, editor of Rocky Mountain Caving, a quarterly journal of Colorado caves, estimates Fulford Cave attracts roughly 3,000 spelunkers each May to October.

Dixon said the Forest Service may make some exceptions to the closure at Fulford Cave. Scientists looking to study the bats and tour guides may be able to get special permits to use the cave, he said.

Rhinehart said he’s disappointed with the “blanket” closure of caves on Forest Service lands. Area cavers had been pushing for a targeted closure of caves where the bats were most at risk, he said.

“The cavers suggested that we would work with the Forest Service to indentify those caves with significant bat colonies,” Rhinehart said.

Dixon said the Forest Service will work with members of the caving community to identify caves that can be re-opened.

Although the organized caving community may not support the closings, Rhinehart said cavers will abide by them.

However, several cavers are skeptical that a gate at the main entrance to Fulford Cave would keep people out. Dixon said the Forest Service will use gates or signs to mark closed caves.

One of the skeptical spelunkers is Richard Speaect, chairman of the Colorado Grotto, a caving club with more than 100 members.

“Fulford Cave is so well known by so many people that if some attempt is made to block or close the cave, I think it will probably be defeated by somebody,” he said.

Rhinehart agrees.

If a gate block the main entrance to Fulford Cave, which is a culvert with a ladder, visitors might be tempted to sneak in one of the other entrances, he said. Those entrances involve free climbing down slippery surfaces, Rhinehart said.

“It’s likely people are going to fall there,” he said.

And putting gates at the two other entrances could prove expensive, he said. That could cost up to $100,000, Rhinehart said, citing a study at another cave.

Forest service personnel will be enforcing the closures, Dixon said.

Breaking into Fulford cave could lead to a fine as high as $5,000 for an individual and $10,000 for groups, plus up to six months in jail, he said.

That said, Dixon stressed that the Forest Service isn’t closing the cave just to collect fees or jail people.

“The attempt is to balance our ecosystem and not lose our bat population,” he said.

Fulford Cave is home to the Townsend’s Big-Eared bat and several species of the Myotis “mouse-eared” bat, said Cyndi Mosch, a cave specialist with the Colorado Bat Working Group, a conservation group that advocates for bats. Exactly how many bats live in the cave will be the subject of an upcoming study, she said. So far research suggests the cave contains “significant bat activity,” Mosch said.

Theoretically, white nose syndrome could threaten any of those bats, she said. One species of bat in Fulford Cave, myotis lucifugus, has been prone to the syndrome in other parts of the country, Mosch said.

“We know that species succumbs to white nose in the east,” she said. “It certainly could here.”

Staff Writer Sarah Mausolf can be reached at 970-748-2928 or smausolf@vaildaily.com.