Caving Moratorium in VA thru April 15, 2009

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Caving Moratorium in VA thru April 15, 2009

Postby Scott McCrea » Mar 5, 2009 8:30 pm

This is from the previously mentioned conference call today as reported by Rick Lambert of VSS (VA Speleological Society):

The VSS gave majority support to the proposition; the BCCS, CCV, and VAR gave 100% support to the proposed protocol.

VSS directors proposed several deviations from the "original" (actually came to VSS as version 3) protocol. Here is v. 3:

Recommended caver practices and equipment protocols for reducing the risk of transmission of White Nose Syndrome by humans

During the winter of 2009, White Nose Syndrome (WNS) has been confirmed to be affecting bat populations in Pendleton County, West Virginia. Recent, February 2009, surveys of significant bat and recreational caves in adjacent Highland and Bath counties in Virginia revealed what appears to be early stage WNS present in at least one cave in Virginia: Breathing Cave in Bath County, located near the Highland County border.

This winter, caves in Virginia have been surveyed for WNS in Giles, Bland, Wise, Lee, Bath, and Highland counties. So far, signs of WNS have only been observed in Bath County. However, since Highland County lies directly between Bath County and Pendleton County, West Virginia, along the same belt of karst, it is likely that WNS is present in Highland County as well.

Evidence is mounting that humans may play a significant role in transmission of the biological agent(s) responsible for WNS in bats. The strongest such evidence is that WNS in the Virginias appears to be showing up first in recreational caves with high visitation. It is known that some of those cavers visiting the affected West Virginia Caves had previously visited WNS affected caves in New York. While it is unlikely that humans are the sole or even the primary vector, transmission of the disease by humans could increase both the rate and geographic extent of the WNS epidemic.

The Virginia Cave Board and Natural Heritage Karst Program are asking for a moratorium (a voluntary ban) on all caving activity in Virginia until April 15, 2009. A new statement will be issued on or before that time. Please note that at that time, we may ask to further extend the moratorium.

During the moratorium, work will be performed to identify and restrict access to significant bat caves. A significant bat cave is defined as a cave used by rare or endangered bat species, significant numbers of common bat species, and/or a high diversity of bat species. These determinations will be made jointly by the Virginia Department of Game and Inland Fisheries, the Virginia Natural Heritage Program, and the Virginia Cave Board in consultation with members of the caving community. Input from cavers is sought and encouraged. A list of these caves will be posted on the VAR List of Closed and Limited Access Caves. Please note that many of the significant bat caves are already on the VAR List.

Secondly, we will work with biologists studying WNS to establish and refine protocols to reduce the possibility of transmission of WNS by cavers. Some of the protocols under consideration are listed below. Comment on them is welcome. Cavers choosing not to observe the moratorium are strongly urged to follow these draft protocols. Once the moratorium is lifted, all cavers will be asked to follow protocols to reduce the risk of transmission of WNS by cavers:

1. Geographic isolation of caving activity and/or gear:

Cavers are requested to limit their caving activity to one geographic area as defined by a county or group of counties. The designation of caving areas appears at the end of this document. The rationale behind this is that the sterilization procedures are likely not 100% effective, especially since neither the specific causal agent nor mode of transmission has yet been definitively identified. Cavers choosing to cave in more than one of the defined areas are asked to dedicate a specific set of caving gear for each respective defined geographic area. Specific sets of clothing and all other caving gear should be dedicated for exclusive use in a single designated geographic area (as defined below). If you must go caving in multiple areas, complete disinfection of vehicles is recommended between trips to different areas. Special care should be taken to segregate any cave clothing and equipment dedicated for use in a given area from all other sets of clothing and equipment dedicated for use in any other geographic caving areas respectively.

2. Strict adherence to decontamination procedures when moving between caves (even within the same geographically designated area)

After exiting one cave and prior to entering another cave, even within a designated caving area, decontamination practices as outlined by the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service must be strictly adhered to. ALL equipment must be cleaned! These procedures are posted at:

http://www.fws.gov/northeast/whitenosem ... ontainment

It should be noted that these decontamination procedures do not address pathogens carried on or within the bodies of cavers exposed to the WNS fungus (the suspected but as yet unconfirmed pathogen). To reduce the risk of harboring or carrying the disease, cavers should thoroughly clean and scrub themselves with soap and tolerably hot water following each trip to each cave. All clothes worn while traveling to and from the caving area should be laundered as soon as possible following caving trips.

List of Virginia Caving Areas:

    Alleghany Highlands: Bath and Highland counties
    Alleghany County
    Shenandoah Valley: Frederick, Clarke, Warren, Shenandoah, Rockingham, Augusta, and Page counties
    Middle James and Roanoke River basins: Botetourt, Rockbridge, Roanoke, Craig (except RT 42 south of Newcastle) counties
    New River Valley: Giles, Montgomery, Bland, Pulaski, Wythe, Craig counties (only RT 42 south of Newcastle)
    Holston: Smyth and Washington counties
    Clinch: Scott, Russell, and Tazewell counties
    Powell: Lee and Wise counties
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Re: Caving Moratorium in VA thru April 15, 2009

Postby PYoungbaer » Mar 5, 2009 8:50 pm

Thank you, Scott.

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Re: Caving Moratorium in VA thru April 15, 2009

Postby Scott McCrea » Mar 5, 2009 8:59 pm

So, now what? I am currently involved in a survey of a cave in VA. We are just getting to the good stuff! Personally, I see this moratorium as an opportunity.

I plan to take the opportunity to do some preventative maintenance to my gear. Thoroughly clean my packs, knee pads, boots, vertical gear, helmet, lights, etc (toothbrush, toothpicks, elbow grease, pressure washer, etc). I'm going to replace and up grade some stuff. Don't forget to support your hard working cave gear vendors. Replace the lanyards on my ascenders. Clean the eyepieces on my survey instruments. Run some stuff thru the dishwasher (survey book, knee pads, helmet, vertical hardware, etc).

I also plan to have as many vertical practice sessions as possible. This will be a great time to hone those skills and learn some new ones.

I have some articles, cave maps and trip reports that need completed.

We can still ridgewalk, too.

Oh, I guess I could work around the house and spend time with the family too.

This might be a nice little break.
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Re: Caving Moratorium in VA thru April 15, 2009

Postby Carl Amundson » Mar 6, 2009 1:01 pm

Any idea on what West Virginia will do now that Virginia has effectively shut down all caving until the middle of April?
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Re: Caving Moratorium in VA thru April 15, 2009

Postby VACaver » Mar 6, 2009 4:49 pm

Anyone wanna bet there's a whole bunch of people walking around with a zombie look who have NO clue what they're gonna do this weekend?
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Re: Caving Moratorium in VA thru April 15, 2009

Postby Cheryl Jones » Mar 6, 2009 5:27 pm

There are a lot more people in VA going into caves besides cavers associated with the NSS or grottos. What is the plan to get the word out on closures and the disinfecting process to youth groups, adventure sport operations, church groups, and Joe Local? They visit the well-known recreational caves.
The strongest such evidence is that WNS in the Virginias appears to be showing up first in recreational caves with high visitation.


Why would the moratorium be lifted April 15? Couldn't cavers continue to carry a disease or fungus between caves after that date, which could then lie in wait for bats to roost?

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Re: Caving Moratorium in VA thru April 15, 2009

Postby karstmd » Mar 6, 2009 6:47 pm

As I posted yesterday on the VAR listserve concerning the moratorium, there seemed to be absolutely *no* mention of informing the population most likely to be possible vectors. These outsiders out-number us 10 to 1 and often visit more than one cave per weekend. Cheryl faithfully recreated my list. I also mentioned the probability of needing to address tourist visits to commercial caves....but good luck with that. For my part I contacted one college group so far.
All the responses I got from the listserves were positive. Great idea! The NSS will be making an informative dvd... Perhaps about the great bat extinction maybe. Doesn't anyone know how to use a phone anymore?...or e-mail lists...or Google? With a properly motivated caver task force, 90% of the outside spelunking groups could be contacted within 30, maybe 60 days. But no, let us shackle the bats greatest potential protectors....cavers. Cavers are *not* the problem. They are part of the solution.
WNS is a very serious problem and we need to treat it that way. Every college has an outing club ( except the electoral college I suppose ). Scout groups are everywhere and the NSS has if I am not mistaken, a youth group liaison. Cave-for-Pay...we know who you are. County Rec groups not as easy to contact. Church groups...a bit tougher to contact. GDI's that are real cavers know the story by now. Those independents that don't most likely will encounter a knowledgeable caver at a cave....except when we are sitting on our hands at home because we are not allowed to go caving. We can contact many of these groups...*NOW*.
This forum is fun and all, but the real meat of the operation must come as a blunt instrument into e-mail boxes. Cavers need to step up. We cannot wait for the committees.
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Re: Caving Moratorium in VA thru April 15, 2009

Postby PYoungbaer » Mar 6, 2009 7:24 pm

Hi, Cheryl,

Hey, you started this whole thread over a year ago - and nearly 50,000 viewings ago. Unbelievable. I just wanted to publicly thank you for all your interest and support. As a former NSS Board of Governors member, you stood up and recognized how big an issue this was, and worked hard to deal with it. Thanks.

Some personal comments: I've always been concerned that any of the moratoria, protocols, advisories, etc. will only reach the organized and responsible caving community. Not the locals ("spelunkers"), or the myriad other groups you mention. Ironically, then what happens is the knowledgeable and responsible cavers are the ones who suffer most from the restrictions. That's upside down.

Local grottos and conservancies may have a good grasp on those in their area, and could help get the word out. For example, the Northeastern Cave Conservancy has over 80 regular church, scout, camp, and other groups that visit our caves and the nearby NSS preserves. We have group permits, and provide a pre-season letter. Last year, we were able to get it out prior to the spring melt and end of hibernation, and include the USFWS protocols for them. We particularly emphasized cleaning their camp vans and other vehicles. It's not unusual for them to visit a series of caves. I would urge all of us to look for those opportunities locally to share and educate.

I had some input (through Carol Zokaites) to the VA protocols, and they somewhat mirror how we handled it in the northeast. We called a moratorium about this time last year, primarily to avoid putting any more stress on bats that were struggling to maintain life with depleted fat reserves. Fish and Wildlife folks called off their surveys, too. Let them rest.

We reopened everything May 15 (compares to April 15 in VA). The bats were gone, and the thinking was that cave visits wouldn't harm them.

That thinking has evolved as more has become known about the fungus and possible human assistance with its travel. It may make sense to continue the moratorium past April 15. When we issued ours last year, we warned of the possibility of something similar, but didn't end up continuing it. Then we closed everything again (bat caves) October 15. This year, that's a wide open question.

My personal deeper worries - while naturally concerned for the bats, and possible species extinction and devastating effects on the balance of our ecosystems - I am concerned about caving - not just recreational or sport, but exploration, discovery, and all the related sciences. This is who most of us are - it's not just a hobby - it's a commitment on many levels. All that stops when caving stops. How do we contain that fundamental human drive for understanding the unknown? What do we do without the continued search for knowledge? Think of the microbiology, the hydrology, the geology, the paleontology, the biology, etc. What about the future of the NSS as an organization? The grottos? Our beloved vendors? These are big things - especially if, ultimately, it turns out there isn't really anything we can do to stop WNS, just let it run its course.

Decon protocols, canceled events, geographic limitations, discussion over whether we should annihilate populations, the latest theory on microwaves, West Nile Virus, or whatever are all inconveniences, disappointments, and distractions, but they aren't the big picture.

What these moratoria are doing are perhaps saving some bats and perhaps buying some time. The scientists and F&W folks are all having the same conversations - how to buy time until the science can catch up with some answers. And they are truly struggling to find the money to do enough of the research. PLEASE GIVE TO THE WNS RAPID RESPONSE FUND. People are complaining loudly about the protocols - especially around ropes and other load-bearing textiles. Appropriately so. But there isn't money to fund the research necessary to change them. I'm sitting on a proposal right now that I would love to fund, but can't Talking about it won't change it. Funding the research will. Please help.

Jeremy Coleman, the USFWS person who is coordinating the WNS management side of things, said something a couple weeks ago that stuck with me: "We're trying to prevent species extinction, not just observe it." I applaud the re-commitment to the challenge, despite the depressing daily arrival of more bad news.

Thanks for listening to some personal thoughts.

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Re: Caving Moratorium in VA thru April 15, 2009

Postby wyandottecaver » Mar 6, 2009 9:05 pm

reaching outside the "organized" caver community is important and should be done. But lets not wear rose colored glasses. 30+ pages of WNS have shown that there are plenty of people who seem to know the facts but choose to do business as usual. Many of the groups mentioned as needing reached are already geographically isolated in their caving and their frequency of caving is low. Many active cavers I know in Indiana have at least heard of WNS even if they don't know much about it.

If people can carry WNS, I'd still say that active cavers who want to stay active regardless of WNS are the primary weak links. A bat from NY *might* have dashed way down to VA last fall and set up house. A scout group might have went on a long distance jaunt too. A caver from PA who thought he was safe and went to VA, A stubborn caver who ignored the rules to cave where he wanted? I wouldn't discount any of them but some certainly seem more likely than others.
I'm not scared of the dark, it's the things IN the dark that make me nervous. :)
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Re: Caving Moratorium in VA thru April 15, 2009

Postby Scott McCrea » Mar 10, 2009 8:10 am

The press release about WNS in VA: http://www.dgif.virginia.gov/wildlife/b ... -syndrome/

For Immediate Release
3/9/2009

Virginia Investigating Possible Cases of White-Nose Syndrome in Bats

Asking Cavers, Owners of Caves to Help by Reducing Cave Traffic

Richmond, VA — The Virginia Department of Game and Inland Fisheries (VDGIF) is investigating two recent potential occurrences of white-nose syndrome (WNS) in bats in Virginia. While conducting winter surveys of caves where bats hibernate, known as hibernacula, biologists and volunteers from VDGIF, the Virginia Department of Conservation and Recreation, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, and the Virginia Speleological Survey discovered bats that showed signs of WNS in Breathing Cave in Bath County. Soon after, similar symptoms were found in bats in Clover Hollow Cave in Giles County. Specimens were collected and sent to the U.S. Geological Survey (USGS) National Wildlife Health Center in Madison, Wisconsin, for analysis. It will take from two to three weeks for results to be available.

White-nose syndrome was first found in the winter of 2006-2007, when bats in several caves around Albany, New York, displayed a white fungus growing around their muzzles, ears, and wings. By spring 2008, thousands of bats had died, and conditions had spread to other sites in New York and adjacent states. By the winter of 2008-2009, WNS had spread to bats in Vermont, Massachusetts, Connecticut, Pennsylvania, New Jersey, and West Virginia, and is suspected in New Hampshire. Scientists have been alarmed by the rapid and far-reaching spread of the syndrome. Little is known about WNS, but one common symptom in these cases is the presence of this newly-identified fungus. How the fungus affects bats remains unclear. No known human health issues have been identified.

During the summer and early fall in Virginia, bats feed on insects and build body fat reserves critical for successful hibernation and survival through the winter months. Bat colonies consume thousands of insects in a single night, including mosquitoes and beetles. During hibernation, the metabolism of bats slows dramatically, virtually shutting down, to conserve fat reserves. Bats emerge in the spring ready to consume insects, give birth, raise their young pups, and continue their life cycle.

Bats collected from known WNS caves have depleted fat reserves; some even have appeared to starve to death. Bats suspected of having WNS appear to arouse more often and are more active during the hibernation period. Reports of bats found flying outside of mines or caves, apparently trying to find food, at a time when they should be hibernating, are symptomatic of the syndrome. WNS is almost always fatal to affected bats.

The impact of white-nose syndrome on bat populations could be highly significant if the condition cannot be controlled and continues to spread. Some WNS caves in New York have experienced declines of more than 90% of the bat populations. Losses in bat populations of this magnitude will cause a substantial ripple effect due to the important role that bats play as insect feeders, as a food source for other animals (hawks, owls, raccoons, skunks, and other animals that prey on bats), and with their contributions to cave ecosystems.

How WNS is spread is under investigation, but it is suspected that transmission of the syndrome can occur by both bat and human traffic in caves. Many of the caves where WNS has been confirmed have been popular sites for recreational caving. Huge geographical leaps in WNS occurrences beyond the migration distances of bats, and in popular recreational caves, indicate that people who visit caves may inadvertently play a role.

Due to concerns about spread of WNS, the Virginia Department of Game and Inland Fisheries has closed the caves on its wildlife management areas until more is known about the transport of the syndrome. The Department will be asking private landowners with caves on their properties to consider closing their caves temporarily. Caving groups and individuals who enjoy caving are being asked to respect this temporary closure of Virginia caves and to suspend recreational and research caving activities until more information about the cause and spread of WNS can be determined.

The USGS National Wildlife Health Center is currently conducting experiments to determine how white-nose syndrome is spread between affected bat colonies and healthy bat colonies. Research is being conducted on soil samples to learn more about the fungus. The scientific community is well aware that, with the rapid spread of WNS and the high mortality, answers to the mystery of WNS and solutions to address it are of the utmost importance. Because of the potential impact of WNS, the VDGIF urges cavers and cave owners to help Virginia's bat populations by reducing cave traffic until more is learned about this syndrome.

For more information about white-nose syndrome and about the bats of Virginia, visit http://www.dgif.virginia.gov.

It is the mission of the VDGIF to maintain optimum populations of all species to serve the needs of the Commonwealth; to provide opportunity for all to enjoy wildlife, inland fish, boating and related outdoor recreation and to work diligently to safeguard the rights of the people to hunt, fish and harvest game as provided for in the Constitution of Virginia; to promote safety for persons and property in connection with boating, hunting and fishing; to provide educational outreach programs and materials that foster an awareness of and appreciation for Virginia's fish and wildlife resources, their habitats, and hunting, fishing, and boating opportunities.

* © 2009 Virginia Department of Game and Inland Fisheries
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Re: Caving Moratorium in VA thru April 15, 2009

Postby dfcaver » Mar 10, 2009 2:55 pm

One of the things I keep remembering as we try to make sense of the speed of WNS spread south is the unconfirmed reports of WNS in 2008 that were "debunked". Who can forget this articile http://www.wvgazette.com/News/200804280635 detailing possible WNS in Trout Cave in April 2008? Given the full blown emergence this winter, we are able to assume (yes, I know that's dangerous) that WNS was already in Trout as early as April 2008. As bat to bat spread is most likely limited during hibernation, my guess is that WNS could have spread south to Virginia last summer, if not earlier.

Of course, if a bat dies of WNS in an unpopular cave, does he appear on the map? Are we noticing the spread of WNS to popular recreational caves because cavers are visiting popular recreational caves and are there to see the infected bats? There's probably a limited window to make these observations - the weakest die in the cave and are quickly scavenged, the next weakest die on the landscape, unnoticed and the strong may not die until next year. PA has pretty much called off surveys, which might end up with the loss of information that can never be retrieved.
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