Cavers in California recently got the unwelcome news that Pseudogymnoascus destructans (the fungus that causes WNS) has been detected in California bats. Sadly, it’s a day that we all knew was likely to come sooner or later, but that doesn’t make it less difficult to accept.
The jury is still out as to how WNS will affect the bat population on the West Coast — as we now know, the presence of the fungus alone isn’t enough to cause WNS; it also requires the right combination of cave environment and bat behavior to blossom into the epidemic seen in other parts of North America. There’s reason to hope that it may not flourish here as much as it has elsewhere, but as the saying goes, hope is not a strategy.
So what strategy should we use to minimize the long-term risk to our beloved avocation of underground exploration? The most obvious answer is one that few will be enthusiastic about: increased vigilance about decontamination of our cave gear.
I know, I know — it’s tempting to dismiss WNS decon protocols as a waste of time. Epidemiological studies have made clear that bat-to-bat transmission appears to be the only significant vector by which the fungus spreads, and there isn’t any evidence of even a single case of human-caused transmission. Even if this is the case, I want to persuade you that following an approved decon protocol is a good idea. For one thing, no one wants to end up as the caver who “wins” the lottery of being the first documented case of human-caused WNS transmission. (At least I certainly don’t!) And, of course, it can also help prevent the unwanted spread of other cave biota to unrelated cave ecosystems. But there’s another compelling reason: the caving community needs to set the standard of behavior here. We should see this as an opportunity to demonstrate that conservation of cave environments is something that is deeply important to all cavers. If that means we have to go above-and-beyond our previous cleaning standards, we should view it not as a burden to bear, but as a challenge to uphold — and as a way for the general public (and land owners and managers, of course) to see the dedication we have to preserving these resources for everyone.
(Besides, I happen to like my gear clean.)
Those are my thoughts. We’d love to hear yours. Please share them with me at firstname.lastname@example.org.
P.S. Need a refresher on the right decon procedure? Download our flyer at https://westerncaves.org/storage/documents/WNS.pdf, or visit http://caves.org/WNS or https://www.whitenosesyndrome.org for even more information.