Rules designed to slow or stop the spread of the deadly bat disease known as white-nose syndrome into Wisconsin were attacked by critics Monday as being too heavy-handed, especially for commercial operators who could be required to seal off their caves from bats.
Jean Cunningham, owner of Crystal Cave near Spring Valley in northwestern Wisconsin, said keeping bats out of the cave would remove a big part of the reason why many people pay to tour the cave. She said about 35,000 people a year tour the cave.
"We have no idea what would happen when word got out that bats have been excluded from our cave," Cunningham said at a hearing on the rules. "But we would be the ones who would have to bear the brunt of the criticism ... We will not exclude either bats or visitors from our cave."
The DNR has proposed sealing some caves from either bats or people to prevent possible spread of the fungus that causes the bat disease. Though the disease has not yet reached Wisconsin, it has wiped out some cave bat populations on the East Coast and has spread east to Ontario.
Because Wisconsin has one of the largest cave bat populations in the upper Midwest, the agency has proposed three new rules to control spread of the illness. They include designation of the state's four cave bat species as threatened, designation of the fungus that causes the disease as an invasive species, and creation of regulations designed to limit the spread of the illness.
Others at the hearing, including several cavers, were also critical of the plan to possibly close some caves and to prevent cave explorers from using equipment they have used in other states.
Erin Crain, who helped draft the rules for the DNR, said the agency has worked closely with the ten or so commercial caves in Wisconsin.
She said management plans are being tailored to suit individual caves and that no cave is being forced to exclude bats or people. Instead, she said, caves can choose to put in place decontamination routines for visitors, including a simple question and answer process used at popular Mammoth Cave in Kentucky. There, she said, visitors are asked whether they have any belongings or clothing that have been in other caves. If so, they are asked to return the items to their vehicles or change clothing.
"We certainly don't want to cut into their business," Crain said of the commercial cave operators.
Also, commercial caves that charge a fee or host 1,000 or more visitors a year are being given a 45-day exemption from the new rules so they can put a management plan in place. The rules are scheduled for a vote before the Natural Resources Board on Dec. 8.