Court ruling clears way for BLM cave visits | AspenTimes.com

Court ruling clears way for BLM cave visits

John Stroud
Post Independent
Aspen, CO Colorado

GLENWOOD SPRINGS – A federal court judge, after a Friday hearing in Washington, D.C., sided with the U.S. Bureau of Land Management in its earlier decision to issue permits allowing a group of cavers to visit two caves in the Glenwood Springs area this weekend.

The Center for Biological Diversity last week filed a lawsuit objecting to a BLM decision to allow members of the National Speleological Society (NSS) into the Anvil Points and LaSunder caves. The NSS is in Glenwood Springs for a convention all next week.

The center had argued that biologists with the Colorado Division of Wildlife advised the BLM not to allow visits to the two caves because of concerns about the possible spread of white-nose syndrome. The fungal disease has decimated bat populations in several eastern states since 2006.

Local BLM and U.S. Forest Service officials both decided to allow access to a limited number of caves where bat populations are believed to be small or nonexistent, including the two in question.

The Forest Service decision temporarily eased an existing cave access ban for the group. The ban was put in place last summer as a result of concerns about white-nose syndrome.

The BLM has no ban in place, but does require permits for group activities.

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Both agencies have required that the visits be limited in duration, involve a limited number of visitors per trip, and that decontamination procedures be used to guard against spreading a fungus responsible for white-nose syndrome.

“I’m very pleased with the outcome,” said NSS convention co-organizer Dave Lester. “Everybody involved with our organization is pulling for the bats, and I believe we’re doing the right thing in taking precautions.”

Lester said the cave tours are a very limited aspect of the convention, involving only about a dozen caves located on public lands.

Less than 50 of the anticipated 1,400 convention participants will be taking part in the actual cave tours, he said.

“This convention is more for cavers to meet above ground to discuss and learn about caves,” Lester added. “It’s a teaching and training opportunity.”

The convention includes meetings, workshops and lectures on a variety of scientific and technical topics, and is being held at Glenwood Springs High School. The event is being hosted by the Glenwood Caverns Adventure Park resort.

One of the sessions next week will be devoted to discussions about white-nose syndrome, including caver relations with federal agencies, the Colorado DOW’s involvement in the issue, bat monitoring efforts, and risk assessment for the disease spreading to western states.

“There is a lot of research still being done, and we still don’t know a lot about how the disease is spread and whether humans are a risk to spread it,” Lester said. “The convention will include a major exchange of information on this issue.”

Meanwhile, Mollie Matteson, spokesperson for the Center for Biological Diversity, said the organization was disappointed with the Friday court ruling.

“It’s important to point out that the judge made a decision giving deference to the (BLM), and that the permit went through an appropriate process,” Matteson said. “The decision does not mean there is no danger of transporting the disease through human access into caves.”

Matteson said the Center will continue to lobby the BLM to also implement a cave closure, as the Forest Service has done, until more is know about the disease and how it spreads.

“The scientific evidence is as strong, if not stronger, today that the potential exists for people to carry the fungus into these areas,” she said.

jstroud@postindependent.com