April 28, 2008

Recommendations on Re-opening the NSS Nature Preserves

Peter Youngbaer, NSS Liaison on White Nose Syndrome

Introduction and Background:

            Five NSS Nature Preserves have been closed since early winter due to the White Nose Syndrome (WNS) phenomenon.  Two of these, Barton Hill and Schoharie, are two of the four original White Nose sites in New York State, and experienced high bat mortalities. The third NY preserve, McFail’s, has recently been identified as a White Nose site.  

            The Tytoona Preserve in Western Pennsylvania, and the John Guilday Preserve in West Virginia were also closed to prevent the possible spread of WNS.

            At their March meeting, the NSS Board of Governors saw a presentation on WNS and created the Liaison, which I agreed to take on.  One of the first requests of the Liaison was to make a recommendation on the closure status and possible re-opening of the NSS preserves by May 15.  This date corresponds with the traditional end of hibernation in the northeast.  It also is the date set by the Northeastern Cave Conservancy for re-opening its 9 caves closed due to WNS.

            In making the recommendations below, I consulted several times with each of the preserve managers, the state and federal agency personnel in the northeast and others on their staffs, other researchers in the Northeast Bat Working Group, and a good number of cavers, many of whom have been active in the field work here in the northeast.

            I also consulted the cave visitation log, managed through the Northeastern Cave Conservancy website and analyzed by Andrew King, US Fish and Wildlife Service.

            There is no question the White Nose Syndrome situation is going to be with us for some time.  While the bat deaths remain a mystery, and much research is ongoing, there is sufficient agreement to support the following recommendations.  An important, and sometimes overlooked point, is that re-opening historically high-visitation caves relieves pressure on other, privately-owned caves, where some cavers, locals, college outing clubs, etc. are looking to go, despite advisories to the contrary.  Separate discussion on each separate Preserve and recommendation follows.


1.     The Barton Hill, McFail’s, Schoharie, and Tytoona Nature Preserves should be re-opened, effective May 15.

2.     As reported to me by the preserve manager, Dave West, the John Guilday Caves Nature Preserve was closed by him, in collaboration with state and federal agencies.  It was not closed by the NSS general action relating to the other four preserves.  The NSS Board of Governors, directly through its Preserve manager and through the WNS Liaison, should continue to monitor the status of the John Guilday Preserve and assist in any way possible with re-opening of those caves. 

3.     Decontamination procedures should remain in place for cavers, agency and research personnel for clothing and gear when moving in or out of the affected region, or from an affected cave to one not yet affected.

4.     The NSS should anticipate closing Barton Hill and Schoharie in October for the winter hibernation season in order to permit the remaining bat population to recover.  (Note:  McFail’s already is managed in this fashion as a bat hibernaculum).

Barton Hill Nature Preserve: 

            Barton Hill Nature Preserve contains three caves, most notably Gage’s Cave.  Gage’s Cave is one of the four initial “ground zero” White Nose sites.  In 2007, a large bat mortality was discovered, with 805 carcasses removed from the cave.  In the management plan for the cave, it cites a 1985 bat survey, where 968 bats were counted.  This winter, on March 1, New York Department of Environmental Conservation and local cavers completed another survey, counting only 88 bats.

            The remaining bats will have left hibernation by May 15, so caving activity over the summer will have no adverse affect on them.  However, the cave manager, Thom Engel, state and federal agency personnel, other researchers and cavers generally agree that it may be a good idea to close the cave to visitation in the fall, probably around October 15. This would represent a change in the historic winter use of the cave. I suggest we revisit this issue by Sept. 30.

Schoharie Caverns Nature Preserve:

            Schoharie Caverns is another of the initial WNS sites.  Again, a large bat mortality was discovered by cavers in 2007.  A 2006 survey counted 1329 bats; 2007 found 478.    Only 125 carcasses were found, most likely due to the stream resurgence and ease of access by scavengers.  (Note:  this contrasts to Gage’s Cave, where the deep pit entrance denies scavenger access to carcasses).  On March 7, a NYDEC and caver survey counted only 32 bats.

            As with Gage’s, there is little likelihood of any harm to bats to come from summer visitation.  Preserve manager, Bob Addis, concurs.  Similarly, Schoharie has historically enjoyed year-round access.  This, too, should be revisited in the fall.

            Schoharie, like Gage’s, is a popular cave, and typically sees high visitation.  Both of these sites also have cabins used by cavers during outings.  The cabins have not been closed during the cave visitation moratorium.

McFail’s Nature Preserve:

     McFail’s Cave, largest in the northeast at over 7 miles, is a major holding of the NSS.  The Preserve also contains Hanor’s and Cave Disappointment, connected with about 500 feet of passage, and the 50 footer, Featherstoneaugh’s Flop.

            McFail’s is historically closed for the hibernation season, and would normally open May 15, and when water flow permits.  I recommend that be allowed to happen as usual this year.

            On April 14, cavers succeeded (after a couple of water-deterred attempts) in entering McFail’s and saw just enough of the cave to identify bats with WNS.  This was a scouting trip encouraged by NYDEC merely to identify if the cave was or was not a WNS site. 

            The last full bat survey at McFail’s was completed n 1980, and is referenced in the preserve management plan.  At that time 4,765 bats were noted. The cave has been managed as a hibernaculum, with routine winter closures from October through May.

            Interestingly, the 1980 survey lists 1361 Keen’s bats (Myotis keenii), which are an endangered bat found only in the Pacific Northwest.  Most likely a case of misidentification, I’ve brought this to the attention of the cave manager, Tom Rider, and the NYDEC.  This anomaly, coupled with the long time since the last full bat survey, and the recent identification of WNS are justification, in my opinion, for a new full bat survey in McFail’s. 

            The Hanor/Disappointment and Featherstoneaugh caves see few, if any bats, and visitation would likely have no impact on the WNS situation.

            Again, I see no reason not to open McFail’s May 15.

Tytoona Cave Nature Preserve:

            The Tytoona preserve is located in Western Pennsylvania, halfway between Tyrone and Altoona (hence the name).  It was closed by the NSS as a preventive measure, to guard against the possibility of cavers from the northeast carrying or spreading contaminants or diseases outside the initially affected area.

            The management plan for Tytoona mentions that Little Brown bats are found in the cave and occasional other species are visitors, but there are no provisions for managing the cave as a hibernaculum.  Indeed, preserve manager Garrett Czmor stated that Tytoona is simply not a bat cave, with three to zero bats being seen there most years.  Having been there personally, I concur.

            Further, many cavers and others have wondered why Tytoona was closed at all. While the NSS erred on the side of caution, I again see no reason at this time not to reopen the cave and return it to its normal year-round visitation under its usual policies.

            That said, I must mention the fact that there are at least three instances of suspected white nose fungus detected in Pennsylvania caves.  Early results indicate a different species of fungus, and scientists have only gone as far as saying they are questionable in terms of WNS. 

            Indeed, just as I was writing this report, the state of Pennsylvania announced that it was closing one of its caves, Barton Cave, for the summer, due to suspected WNS (http://www.post-gazette.com/pg/08118/876982-85.stm) This action is out of synch with other states in the northeast.  State agency personnel told me they were taking a conservative approach with this highly visited cave, deciding to close it since they felt they could not be assured that all users would follow decontamination protocols.

John Guilday Caves Nature Preserve:

            The John Guilday Caves Nature Preserve contains three major caves – Trout, New Trout, and Hamilton.  As mentioned in the recommendations above, this preserve was closed locally by action of the preserve manager, Dave West, not by the NSS action.  In speaking with Dave, and also with Craig Stihler of the West Virginia Department of Natural Resources, this was apparently a collaborative preventive effort in response to early reports of WNS.

            Many northeastern cavers, this author included, visit West Virginia for its excellent caving.  As the cause of WNS was (and remains) unknown, as well as the possible methods of spreading, closing the Trout, New Trout, and Hamilton caves on the preserve was a collaborative decision.

            Annual or semi-annual bat surveys are conducted in the caves, and a small (@25) population of endangered Indiana bats (Myotis sodalist) live in Trout Cave.  As long-time observers know, the presence of this small population caused a huge controversy about the closing of the caves early in the NSS’ ownership tenure.  It is abundantly clear to this author, from many feelings expressed by cavers, that the new closures have re-awakened deeply held feelings on the subject.

            As an aside, a lengthy list of West Virginia caves have also been closed preventively.  These caves are on private, state, and federal lands.  The Monongahela National Forest issued a press release in March permanently closing six of its caves to preemptively protect bats in response to the WNS situation.

A concern is for other endangered and threatened species not found in the northeast.  If WNS were to get a hold in any of these other species, that would be a great concern.  And if cavers were spreading something, this could happen quickly.

To date, no WNS has shown up in any West Virginia cave.  The cave visitation log managed by the Northeastern Cave Conservancy has attempted to track caver movement for anyone who visited any of the initial four NY sites since 1/1/07.  As of this writing, only 4 of 32 West Virginia sites visited by northeastern caves had been surveyed.  Three of these were the John Guilday caves, but they were external/entrance checks only.

Whether the number of caves able to be visited is due to lack of staff, lack of volunteer manpower, previously scheduled work or other reasons is not known.  This may present an opportunity for cavers to assist with the field work necessary to re-open caves sooner.

Given all of the above, especially as the closure decision was made locally, I am making no recommendation for NSS action.  Rather, I defer to the manager.

Decontamination Procedures:

            While there is broad agreement that re-opening the four preserves above is warranted, there is also fairly broad agreement within the agency and scientific communities that the advisories on decontamination or gear isolation remain in affect.

 There is some skepticism within the caving community about this.  First of all, it’s a pain (I know, having done it repeatedly).  Secondly, the bleach solution is not recommended for the safety of any vertical gear, which limits options.  Thirdly, some have questioned just what it is we’re protecting against.

            Unfortunately, at this time there are no good answers to what is causing WNS. While much laboratory research has been done, it’s good to remember that this investigation has really only gone on for a matter of months.

            Secondly, while there is no evidence yet that cavers, biologists, or other human visitors are contributing to the spread of WNS, and while many of the researchers don’t believe we are spreading WNS, none are ready to say conclusively that we are not.

            Indeed, the NCC’s cave visitation log identifies 96 separate sites outside the northeast region visited by many different individuals, but only 13 of them have been surveyed to date – and many of these were not full surveys.

            The consensus of people I’ve spoken with agree that we are not going to be making any matters worse by traveling from affected cave to affected cave. Nor are the bats likely to be harmed as they have left hibernation for the summer.

            However, virtually all of the state and federal agency personnel and scientists have advised continued vigilance and caution until more evidence can be built.  Their advice is not only for cavers, but for the researchers doing field work, as well.

They strongly recommend that gear and cave clothing not be taken outside the region, or that it be thoroughly decontaminated.  They also recommend decontamination if you move from an affected site to a non-affected site, even within the region.  Further, cavers coming to the northeast should decontaminate before coming, and before leaving, or use substitute gear. To paraphrase:  go in clean; come out clean.

            The US Fish and Wildlife White Nose webpage has continually updated its recommendations on decontamination and should be checked for the most recent advice. That site is:  http://www.fws.gov/northeast/white_nose.html

Possible Fall Closures of Barton Hill and Schoharie Preserves:

            With the very large die-offs of the bat populations in both Gage’s Cave and Schoharie Caverns, the preserve managers, cavers, and agency personnel have suggested the possibility of winter closures for these caves.  This would be a change from the historical year-round open access to them.

            As the hibernation emergence is just now occurring in the northeast, attention is just beginning to focus on strategies for the fall.  Common sense tells us that avoiding additional stress on remaining animals will be helpful to their recovery.  However, as most of the affected species give birth to only one, perhaps two, pups a year, it make take years for the populations to fully recover.

            The NSS should work through its preserve managers and other local resources to develop the best long-range strategies for assisting the return of healthy bat populations. At a minimum, we should re-visit the issue near the end of September, aware that it may be advisable to close these two preserves again in October.


            I hope you find these recommendations appropriate and justified. I’ve done the best I could in an admittedly short timeframe to make the best recommendations for the bats, the cavers, and the NSS.

            These are recommendations at a point in time. The White Nose Syndrome will continue to be an evolving situation.  A Science Strategy Conference is in the works for early June in Albany, NY to help prioritize strategies.  Future recommendations may be guided by discussions there.

            It may be helpful to know that the Northeastern Cave Conservancy is also opening its caves on May 15, with the same sort of advisories.  Please feel free to contact me with any questions or concerns.

Peter Youngbaer
NSS 16161
Liaison on White Nose Syndrome


 Following is an April 25 email from Al Hicks, NYDEC, reflecting the opinions of most everyone I’ve been in touch with.  The one exception follows, included for perspective.

Greetings all,

I have discussed the issue of opening all affected caves in NY for summer caving traffic with various state and federal agency folks, and I received no opposition to the idea.   As far as I am concerned, all dirty NY sites can be open as of May 15.  We can discuss closing dates later this summer, so that we can best protect whatever survivors may still be out there.   Please keep in mind that we are still concerned that the problem might be spread from cave to cave by people. We have not proven that it is, but we do not yet accumulated enough evidence to prove that it is not.   Therefore, the FWS recommendations regarding the movements of people between dirty and clean sites will remain in effect.  (Minimize the movement of gear, and disinfect gear that is transferred).  If we have low/no traffic sites that might be clean, but have not yet been surveyed, we should discourage any visits to those locations until we get a chance to visit them next winter.   Skull cave comes to mind as one we should stay out of.  

Enjoy the summer,


Alan  Hicks
Mammal Specialist
Endangered Species Unit
NYS Department of Environmental Conservation 
625 Broadway, 5th floor
Albany, NY 12233-4754

Mr. Youngbaer,

1.  I am not a caver, although I have been inside a few public and
private ones, recreationally and for bat research.
2.  My view which is simply my common sense assessment of the current
situation is this:
  a.  Assuming this syndrome is caused by some pathogen that is
apparently contagious/transmissable interspecifically; until a plausible
theory of a Mode of Transmission is proffered, then I think human access
to caves should be limited only to those with a bona-fide need to enter
(e.g. pressing research purposes).  No access simply for recreation or
non-essential or non-bat interests.
  b.  Alternatively, and until decontamination protocols are deemed
truly efficacious and relevant; I would limit cavers in the affected
states/caves/mines to only those individuals who have already been
inside such affected locations within the past year or so.  My issue is
the possibility of transferance/transmission of some UNK vector?  A
corollary control policy may be to not allow any caver who has enterd an
affected location to enter a non-affected location.  Each of these
draconian measures would require some close scrutiny and tracking or
logging of individuals which may not be too workable? - therefore stay
out until this issue is better understood by the biologists.
  c.  If the root cause is not a cave-borne or cave-related pathogen per
se, but a systemic, population, or range endemic condition affecting
physiology or suppressing immune system; then caving activity, during
non-hibernation periods ought to be innocuous; as it has been for so
many previous years.
3.  Until there are real answers or very likely/plausible theories;
everyone should defer to extreme caution and quarantines in the interim.

Jonathan D. Van De Venter
Natural Resources Manager
Picatinny Arsenal, NJ  US Army