A federal agency is asking people to stay out of caves while scientists struggle to figure out what’s killing so many of the bats that live in them.
It’s been three years since officials with the state Department of Environmental Conservation first found dead bats in a Schoharie County cave.
It was next spotted in Albany County, and since then it has spread to at least seven other states.
The affected bats were found with a fuzzy white substance on them, leading officials to dub the affliction “white nose syndrome.”
It’s not known to affect humans but scientists are starting to suspect humans may be involved in spreading the disease.
The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service issued a notice Thursday asking people to voluntarily stay out of caves in any state where white nose syndrome was found, as well as in adjoining states.
In addition to New York, where it was first found, the syndrome has been identified in Vermont, New Hampshire, Massachusetts, Connecticut, Pennsylvania, New Jersey and West Virginia.
It’s likely but not confirmed in Virginia as well, according to the Fish and Wildlife Service.
Researchers suspect a human role in spreading the disease because in some areas, caves popular with cavers have diseased bats while bats in nearby caves that are not visited by people do not show signs of the disease, according to the Fish and Wildlife Service.
Records depicting where cavers have gone also show a connection to the spread of the disease, according to the Fish and Wildlife Service.
The request is voluntary and does not impact commercial caves.
The government said officials plan to discuss the issue with commercial cave owners and managers to identify how to minimize the potential for moving the agent that causes white nose syndrome.
Howe Caverns manager Bob Holt said visitors to the commercial portion of the natural attraction in Schoharie County do not come in contact with the non-commercial section of the cave system where a few bats, albeit in declining numbers, have lived.
There are no bats in the publicly visited section of Howe Caverns — a large employer that draws hundreds of thousands of guests and significant sums of money to the region year-round.
Following three years of research, scientists have yet to pinpoint a cause for the massive bat die-offs.
“It’s pretty bad,” said Diana Weaver, a spokeswoman for the northeastern region of the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service.
Weaver said researchers recently discovered bats in a major Vermont cave suffered a massive die-off over the winter.
“It’s just hitting them very hard. The first year, a little bit, you see a few deaths. Now, it’s pretty devastating,” Weaver said.
The Northeastern Cave Conservancy owns several caves, including Knox Cave and Clarksville Cave in Albany County and others in Schoharie County.
An official there said it’s unclear what the news means for the upcoming season.
“We own and manage a whole bunch of caves. Several of them are very highly visited,” said Peter Youngbaer, vice president of the Northeastern Cave Conservancy and president of the Vermont Cavers Association.
Youngbaer said it’s possible the conservancy may not open Knox Cave at all this season, but decisions will likely be made during an NCC meeting being held on Sunday.
“Up until this afternoon we would have probably re-opened it,” Youngbaer said.
Youngbaer said more than 85 youth groups, churches and summer camps are scheduled to take trips to local caves this season.
“They bring vanloads [of people]. We have all kinds of educational materials and kiosks for Boy Scouts, Girl Scouts. Literally, there are thousands that visit these caves. We will have to get a letter out to them,” Youngbaer said.
The Northeastern Cave Conservancy will be holding a board meeting at 10 a.m. Sunday at the Gallupville House at 919 state Route 443.
The notice from the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service asks people caving in states not affected by the disease to avoid using clothing and gear that’s been used in a cave affected by the disease. No time limit has been set on the voluntary moratorium on caving.
More information on the bats’ plight can be found online at www.fws.gov/northeast/white_nose.html.