Iowa's bat caves may remain closed - KWWL - Eastern Iowa Breaking News, Weather, Closings

Iowa's bat caves may remain closed

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The sign posted outside Maquoketa Caves State Park. The rest of the park is open. The sign posted outside Maquoketa Caves State Park. The rest of the park is open.
Iowa DNR officials emerge from the cave after surveying the hibernating bat population Tuesday afternoon Iowa DNR officials emerge from the cave after surveying the hibernating bat population Tuesday afternoon

JACKSON COUNTY (KWWL) -- Iowa's bats are threatened by the spread of a deadly disease.

Tuesday afternoon, officials with the Iowa Department of Natural Resources studied hibernating bats at Maquoketa Caves State Park. It hosts one of the largest winter populations of hibernating bats in the state.

"Still looks the same, there's nothing much changed," park ranger Scott Dykstra said at the mouth of the cave.

Officials estimated an initial count of between 400 and 600 bats, which is typical, they said.

The best news, however, was no sign of White-Nose Syndrome, a bat disease that's decimating populations of bats in the United States.  The fungal disease first appeared in the eastern US in 2006.

"Some of those states, they've had mortality rates in species such as Little Brown Bats of over 99 percent," Iowa DNR zoologist Daryl Howell said. "The concern is, it could seriously deplete and maybe even cause extinction of some of the species of bats."

To prevent the possible spread of the disease, the DNR closed the caves at Maquoketa Caves State Park to visitors in May 2010, which took a hit on park attendance.

"When the caves were open, we were seeing about 250,000 visitors a year, and we're probably down to 70,000 to 80,000. Just guessing," ranger Dykstra said. "The park is still open, the trails, the campground. Everything in the park is open, it's just visitors cannot enter into the caves."

It's all part of preventing the spread of White-Nose Syndrome, which Howell said is believed to be transmitted bat-to-bat.

"It's not for certain that people can move it, but, like any disease, you want to be extremely careful," Howell said.

Extreme care is needed for something that may be inevitable.

"It has been spreading across the whole eastern United States, so it's very likely that within a few years, we might have it," Howell said. "Hopefully, there would be something that would come along that we could actually use as a cure or reduce the mortality rate."

He said Indiana closed its caves several years ago and just this winter found White-Nose Syndrome plaguing bats in their caves.

It's a disease named for the white fungus that grows on infected bats' muzzles and skin, and it attacks the animals in multiple ways. If the fungus doesn't overtake the bat, it prevents the animal from hibernating, which uses up the bat's fat and energy reserves, eventually weakening and killing it.

Dykstra said it could take several weeks to get the full results of today's study. If the results are good, however, he said there is a possibility of re-opening the caves to limited tour groups this summer.

Online Reporter Becca Habegger

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