MADISON — Wisconsin wildlife officials want emergency authorization to close caves and mines as a devastating bat disease gets nearer to the state.
Department of Natural Resources officials stress that restricting access would be a last resort in cases where landowners won’t help the agency combat white-nose syndrome. But the plan has still created an uproar among commercial cave owners and spelunkers who fear the regulations could cripple their businesses.
“It’s basically telling the landowner the DNR is going to overpower them. I find that disturbing,” said Weston Hanke, co-owner of Eagle Cave, a commercial cave near Blue River.
White-nose syndrome has killed more than a million bats across 14 states and two Canadian provinces since 2006. A white fungus grows on the bats while they hibernate in caves and mines. Researchers believe the fungus causes the bats to wake up, consume their fat stores and starve to death.
Findings from the U.S. Geological Survey Wildlife Health Center show the fungus moves from bat to bat as well as from contaminated caves to bats.
The state DNR says long-distance jumps in the disease’s spread indicate it also may be moving through contaminated caving gear and cavers’ clothing. The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service last month closed caves on its refuge system to prevent humans from spreading the fungus.
The disease hasn’t been found in Wisconsin yet, but it’s close. It turned up last spring about 230 miles south of the Wisconsin-Illinois border and about 300 miles from the state’s northern border. DNR officials fear an outbreak here could wipe out the state’s bat population, in turn exposing crops to more insect damage.
Last month, the Natural Resources Board adopted emergency provisions to add four cave bat species to the state threatened species list and classify the white-nose fungus as an invasive species.
The Natural Resources Board is expected to vote on the new regulations Wednesday.
They would allow DNR workers to enter caves and mines to search for the fungus with either permission from the owners or a warrant.
No one would be allowed to bring gear or clothing into a Wisconsin cave or mine if the equipment was used outside Wisconsin. Gear and clothes that have been used in the state must be decontaminated before they can be used in another state cave or mine. People would have to decontaminate themselves as soon as they walk out of a cave or mine.
The DNR also could ask anyone who owns a cave or mine to restrict human or bat access according to a plan developed with the agency. If the owner doesn’t cooperate, the department could mandate closure.
Opponents see the rules as a power grab with no scientific basis.
Hanke, whose family has run Eagle Cave for 30 years, said he rarely sees any bats in his cave and he probably wouldn’t deny DNR staff if they asked to inspect the site. But he said the agency shouldn’t be allowed to bully him.
“I guess I’m just scared about my business. It worries me that all those years of work and sweat can go up in smoke,” he said. “The DNR has more power than the police department.”
John Lovaas of Woodstock, Ill., explores caves in Wisconsin, Minnesota and Iowa. He said the rules would prevent him from bringing any gear into Wisconsin, even though nothing proves humans move the fungus.
“For me it would effectively end caving in Wisconsin,” he said.
Joe Klimczak is the general manager of Cave of the Mounds, which has no bats. But he said in an e-mail the post-visit decontamination requirements would shut down tours at the site near Blue Mounds.
“There are far more bats living in buildings, so next the DNR may propose the closure of churches and schools,” he wrote.
DNR Endangered Resources Manager Erin Crain said the rules aren’t as draconian as critics think. Anyone could seek a decontamination exemption, she said, adding that cave explorers would face more extensive decontamination than tourists.
She pointed to the federal cave closures as evidence restricting access is a prudent approach to slowing the disease. Closure could mean sealing off bats’ access points, putting up “no trespassing” signs or gates, all at the DNR’s expense, she said.
The state’s 12 commercial caves have relatively few bats, she added, making it more feasible to exclude them than keep tourists out.
“We have no interest in saying you can’t have tours and caving here,” Crain said. “If that’s the way they make a living, that’s the way they make their living.”
The DNR has implemented some of the provisions at two caves at Calumet County’s Ledge View Nature Center, a popular school field trip destination. The center allowed the DNR to relocate the caves’ bats in August and seal entry points, said Ron Zharinger, a county naturalist. Still, a few bats have found ways in, he said.
This summer, the center agreed to follow the agency’s requests to bar anyone wearing clothes they wore in another cave. So far no one has shown up with suspect clothing, although the center has sprayed the shoes of a half-dozen people who said they had worn them in other caves, Zharinger said.
The county wants to work with the DNR, he said, but the caves have lost something. Children used to love seeing the bats in the wild.
“It’s too bad that we had to resort to this,” he said. “We like bats.”