LEWISBURG, W.Va. -- Nothing has affected recreational caving like the spread of white-nose syndrome, the disease that has killed millions of hibernating bats in 19 states and four Canadian provinces since it was first detected -- by a caver -- in Schoharie Caverns, N.Y., in 2006.
In an effort to slow the spread of the fungus-borne disease, state and federal officials initially closed all caves on public lands. Caves owned by conservancies and caving organizations in states where WNS had been found followed suit.
"A number of caving events were called off, and the communities that hosted them suffered financially," said Peter Youngbaer, WNS liaison for the National Speleological Society. The closures also took their toll on campgrounds and cafes in caving areas, he said.
Since then, as decontamination protocols were established for cavers and their gear, and as scientists learned more about the nature of the disease, a number of caves once closed have reopened, or are barring access only during winter hibernation months.
"It's now a patchwork of closures that can make it a challenge for cavers to know where to go," said Youngbaer. But National Speleological Society members are committed to continue working with state and federal scientists to learn more about WNS and limit its effect on cave dwelling bats, while promoting public awareness about the disease and cave conservation, Youngbaer said.
More than 1,100 cavers from across the world have gathered this week in Lewisburg to take part in the National Speleological Society's 2012 convention, nicknamed MayaCon 2012, in humorous homage to the Mayan calendar's supposed end-of-the-world forecast for the year in progress.
"Back in 2004, when we started planning for this convention, there was no white-nose syndrome," said John Pearson of Renick, co-chairman of MayaCon 2012. But for the past several NSS national conventions, the disease has been a major topic of discussion, he said.
At this year's convention, those making presentations on WNS included Jeremy Coleman, head of the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service's WNS program, and Craig Stihler of the West Virginia DNR, who coordinates the state's effort to combat the disease.
Coleman said one research topic now occupying scientists is trying to determine why European bat populations infected with the fungus associated with WNS aren't prone to the same massive die-offs as their American cousins. While bat mortality has approached 100 percent at some Eastern U.S. hibernation caves where WNS is present, and the national death toll from the disease has been estimated as high as 6.7 million bats, the disease has claimed very few European bats.
Many bats that fall victim to WNS die from exposure, after they are awakened from hibernation and leave the shelter of their caves in mid-winter, apparently in search of food.
"We need to know exactly what it is that drives them out of their caves," Coleman said. "We also need to understand why some bat species don't seem to be affected while others are being decimated."
Stihler said the Virginia big-eared bat, a federally listed endangered species, hibernates in relatively large numbers in West Virginia caves where WNS has been detected, but shows no sign of being affected by the disease.
"In fact, we now have the highest number of Virginia big-eared bats on record hibernating here," he said. "Since WNS showed up in the state, it's the only species that doesn't seem to be affected by it."