Great Smoky Mountains National Park closes area known for bat caves

A tri-colored bat infected with white-nose syndrome
A tri-colored bat infected with white-nose syndrome Great Smoky Mountains National Park

Declining bat populations have prompted Great Smoky Mountains National Park to close a nationally recognized area known for its bat caves.

The Whiteoak Sink area will remain off-limits to hikers and other visitors through at least March 31 to limit the spread of white-nose syndrome, or WNS, a fungal disease, officials announced Friday.

Humans are not susceptible to the disease but can inadvertently spread it among bat populations.

Park biologists have reported dramatic declines of cave-dwelling bats throughout the park, most likely because of the disease. Infected bats develop a white fungal growth on their noses, wings and tail membrane.

Humans are not susceptible to the disease because the fungus requires a cold body temperature to survive, but skin-to-skin contact with bats should be avoided due to other transmittable diseases, including rabies. Bats are the only mammal species in the park to test positive for rabies, officials said.

White-nose syndrome damages skin tissue, causing the bats to wake from winter hibernation. Once aroused, the bats burn energy faster, depleting stored fat. With no food available in winter, the bats soon die.

Infected bats exhibit unusual behavior, park officials said, including flying erratically during the day and diving toward people. Some flop around on the ground near cave openings.

“We first confirmed the presence of WNS in the park in 2010,” park wildlife biologist Bill Stiver said in a statement. “The impact has been devastating.

“We estimate that some of our cave-dwelling bat populations have already declined by 80 percent, and we are doing everything we can to both slow the spread of the disease and protect the remaining animals by closing caves and areas near caves to the public.”

The park has 11 species of bats, including the federally endangered Indiana bat and the Rafinesque’s big-eared bat, a state-listed “species of concern” in Tennessee and North Carolina.

In 2009, the park closed its 16 caves and two mine complexes to public entry to help prevent the unintentional spread of white-nose syndrome by people.

A recent plan released by the U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service aimed at stabilizing the decline of the Indiana bat identified the Sink area as one of only 13 sites across the country as critical habitat for the species.

The Whiteoak Sink area is primarily accessed from the Schoolhouse Gap Trail between Townsend and Cades Cove. The closure includes the area bounded by Schoolhouse Gap Trail and Turkeypen Ridge Trail west to the park boundary.

The Schoolhouse Gap and Turkeypen Ridge trails will remain open, park officials said.

Joe Marusak: 704-358-5067, @jmarusak

Why we should care about bats

As the primary predators of night-flying insects, bats play a significant role in maintaining ecological balance, officials at Great Smoky Mountains National Park said. Biologists estimate that one bat can eat 3,000 to 6,000 insects nightly, including moths, beetles and mosquitoes.