CIBOLA COUNTY – All caves in El Malpais National Monument will be closed to public access on Dec. 6. Superintendent Kayci Cook Collins stated the reasons for the closure include monitoring cave environments and testing for a fungus, Geomyces destructans, which is lethal to hibernating bats.
Earlier this year National Park Service staff prohibited public access to a majority of the property’s caves. The new closures include Junction, Xenolith, Big Skylight, Four Windows and Braided caves.
Since last May monument staff have been collecting bat habitat data as part of an on-going research project. So far no evidence has been found indicating that local caves are contaminated with the deadly fungus,
Baker Holden, chief of the property’s natural resource branch, explained that the process has included monitoring cave entry areas. The work by Dr. Diana Northup, UNM researcher, is another aspect of the process. She has recently completed collecting soil samples from ten caves. These locations were identified as historic bat hibernation sites. Because it takes two to three months for the soil cultures to exhibit signs of the fungus, the results will not be available until late February.
Park personnel have recently applied for a grant to fund collection of bat infection rates. Holden said the Tucson-based researcher uses a specialized “swabbing” technique to collect data from bats that exhibit abnormal behavior patterns. If the monument does not receive the grant, other budgetary funds would be used to gather the information.
In addition to monitoring cave entrances, soil sampling and the swabbing project, Holden said Ernie Valdez, a U.S. Geological Survey researcher affiliated with UNM, would conduct a bat population study next spring. Valdez completed his initial survey in the spring of 2001. All of these steps are being taken as part of the park’s commitment to protect and maintain local ecosystems.
“Caves that have maternal colonies, are bat hibernating sites or have agency species of concern must be closed,” Collins said. “Once we have more solid information from our researchers, we will look at recreational caving options.” The facility is identifying caves without bat colonies as part of the research project.
“Federal and state agencies in New Mexico are very concerned about the spread of the fungus, which causes white nose syndrome in bats,” said the superintendent. “The disease has already killed more than one million bats in the northeastern United States and has spread from New York all the way to northwest Oklahoma in four years.”
WNS has caused the most dramatic decline in North American wildlife during the past 100 years, according to officials. Scientists predict this unprecedented decrease will have dire environmental consequences because it poses threats to surface and subterranean ecosystems.
Bats play a significant role in insect control, plant pollination, seed dissemination and cave ecosystems, according to a US Fish and Wildlife Service publication. Hawks, raccoons, skunks and owls rely on them as a food source. These winged mammals have contributed to human knowledge in the fields of sonar technology, vaccine development, blood coagulation and artificial insemination.
Holden acknowledged the value of a healthy bat population. He advised visitors to obey park signs and to check the monument’s website for current policies and procedures.
Leslie DeLong, the monument’s chief of visitor services, explained that the Dec. 6 decision was made to protect bat populations during hibernation. She urged people to stop at the visitors’ center, on Highway 53, for additional information.