Caves at Maquoketa Caves State Park will remain closed this season, as natural resources officials work to slow the spread of a disease fatal to bats. The caves are a popular feature at the state park, in Jackson County.
"The potential spread of White-nose disease is too significant a concern," emphasizes John Maehl, Department of Natural Resources northeast Iowa state park supervisor. "To re-open the caves before we know more about it could be a springboard to other breakouts. That is not worth the risk."
State controlled caves used by bats for roosting or hibernation were closed to the public last spring. That closure will be extended, also. Other features in the parks; such as the trails, boardwalk, Youth camp, campgrounds and playground at Maquoketa Caves, remain open.
Since first detected in 2006, White-nose syndrome (WSN) has been blamed for the deaths of about one million bats across the eastern United States. The fungus has been reported as close to Iowa as Missouri, to the south. Just this winter, confirmation of WSN has come from Indiana, to the east. It is known to spread from bat to bat. Officials are concerned, though that it might inadvertently be spread from footwear and clothing worn by cave explorers moving from one location to another.
"There are a lot of studies, but it could be several years before we have answers on this relatively new disease," warns Daryl Howell, environmental specialist with the DNR land and waters bureau. Howell inspected caves housing hibernating bats-hibernacula--in the park early in March. "We did not find any evidence of WNS. Counts were similar to past years," says Howell; noting that a dramatic change in numbers would have been cause for heightened concern.
In outbreak locales so far, the disease seems especially deadly for the 'little brown bat' species. Most bats in the Maquoketa Caves are of the 'big brown' species. Howell points out, though, that the big browns are affected, too.
That is why park and wildlife officials advocate caution. "If it takes a few years for open access to the resource, it is worth the caution," notes Maehl. "Still, we have seen a passion and desire for people to explore the caves; to learn more about area geology and the bats." Maehl says the DNR is looking into the prospect of guided tours, with safeguards employed to prevent potential spread of the fungus. Currently, staffing shortages restrict that option.