The SCCi Board of Directors recently voted to re-open nearly all of our caves with seasonal bat populations in May 2012. We had closed these caves in 2009, when the cause of White-Nose Syndrome (WNS), and mechanism by which it spread, were poorly understood. At the time, WNS was over 1,000 miles away from our caves, and the board wanted to reduce the potential that a visitor to one of these caves could inadvertently cause a long-distance jump of WNS. The SCCi acted before most state and federal agencies, demonstrating our leadership in cave conservation and management.
Since 2009, we have continued to monitor WNS developments, and we have also continued to analyze the best ways to protect both bats and caves in general. Scientists now understand that bat-to-bat transmission is the primary mode by which WNS is migrating. We also now know that the risk of inadvertent WNS transmission by humans can be dramatically reduced by following established protocols to clean and decontaminate caving gear and clothing.
WNS has now been found in central Tennessee, making it well within individual bat-flight range of all of our caves with seasonal bat populations, and eliminating our original concern about inadvertently facilitating a long-distance jump of WNS. Also, over the past year, some our closed caves have been found to have been vandalized during the closure period, demonstrating the negative impact to caves and cave ecosystems that can occur when cavers stop having an active presence on our preserves.
When the caves re-open, visitors will be required to follow the current SCCi cave visitation policy, and will need to obtain permits and decontaminate their gear and clothing prior to visiting the caves. The SCCi takes WNS and bat conservation very seriously, and will communicate additional information about access to specific caves in the coming months.