Fungus That Causes Bat Disease Found in Cave Park

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By Aaron Hepker

MAQUOKETA, Iowa (AP) — A fungus that causes a deadly disease in bats has been detected inside Maquoketa Caves State Park despite years of efforts to prevent it from reaching there, wildlife officials said Wednesday.

A low level of the fungus that causes white-nose syndrome was found in a hibernating big brown bat in one of the caves that was tested in March as part of a national study aimed at stopping the spread of the disease, the Iowa Department of Natural Resources said.

The disease has killed bats in the northeastern United States and Canada, and wildlife officials have been trying to contain it. They say healthy bat populations are important ecologically and economically, including for the agriculture industry, because bats provide pest control by feeding on harmful insects.

The fungus was not discovered in any of the 14 other bats that were swabbed at one cave in Maquoketa, and DNR official Daryl Howell said in a news release it's hard to say what the finding means because of the low level of fungus detected.

"It may be at a level low enough that it may not infect the bats at all or it could be just the beginning of an outbreak that we will see in the future," Howell said.

But for the agency and those who climb in the caves, Howell said the presence of the fungus means "we now go from trying to prevent the fungus from getting into the cave to trying to prevent it from getting out."

The Maquoketa Caves, for decades a popular recreational spot in eastern Iowa, were closed for two years because of concerns about white-nose syndrome spreading to the 400 bats that hibernate there in the winter. The caves were reopened this spring to those who get permits and go through a brief education session with DNR officials. Up to 10,000 people have gone through the educational program this year, the agency said.

DNR officials say they will add mats with disinfection solution that people will walk across after leaving the caves to decrease the odds the disease will spread to other caves and bat populations. Those who recently have visited other caves will walk across the mats before entering.

The disease spreads from bat to bat, but wildlife officials say the fungus may be carried to caves by humans on clothing and other items. The syndrome is not known to pose a threat to humans, pets or livestock.

Visitors to Maquoketa Caves will be warned not to visit other caves with clothing or gear that was used there.

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