A well-known local cave has been closed to the public, as a measure to help save the bat population that uses it for winter hibernation.
The Star Valley Cave, located on McManus Road in Utica Township, has long drawn the interest of cave explorers locally and, sometimes, not so locally. The entrance to the cave is essentially a hole in the ground on property owned by Hans Verick. A couple of weeks ago, Verick with help from DNR workers and some neighbors installed a steel gate that allows the bats free access to the cave while keeping humans out.
The move to install a “bat friendly gate” became necessary as a response to combating a fungal disease, known as white nose syndrome, that has devastated bat populations in other parts of the country, according to Jennifer Schehr, a Cave and Mine Specialist in Ecological Inventory and Monitoring with the Bureau of Endangered Resources Wisconsin Department of Natural Resources.The disease has been found as close as 200 miles from Wisconsin at sites in Missouri, Indiana and Ontario, according to Schehr. White nose syndrome was first identified in New York and Vermont in 2006 and 2007. The result there has been devastating. A recent study predicted with a 99 percent chance of certainty that the little brown bat will become regionally extinct in the Northeast within the next 16 years.Bats suffer from disease more than some other mammal species because of some unique characteristics. Bats are long-lived for their size and produce just one offspring annually. They also tend to be concentrated in just a few places particularly during their hibernation from October to May. There are four species of bats in Wisconsin.Why is the survival of bats of particular importance?Well, they are the primary predator of night flying insects and that includes mosquitoes.“They are the major consumer of agricultural and forest insect pests,” Schehr noted. “A recent economic assessment judged bats’ value to agriculture in the state as between $658 million and $1.5 billion.”The DNR bat expert said that without bats, farmers face an increased cost in pesticides to try to control the flying insects, which bats eat. The impact on organic farmers with a more limited access to acceptable and affordable pesticides can be even greater. Some of the agricultural pests controlled by bats include cucumber beetles and the corn rootworm, in it’s larval stage.“Organic farmers rely on bats,” Schehr said. “I really can’t say what a world without bats would be like.”Why are caves like the one in Star Valley so important?The caves serve as bat hibernacula from October to May. While bats may disperse to outbuildings, trees and other places to roost during the summer season, they return to places like the Star Valley cave with moderated temperatures during the winter months to hibernate.The local cave, like many others, was gated because of a fear that people could bring the fungal disease known as white nose syndrome to the cave on clothing or shoes, particularly if it had been worn in other caves.Beyond the transference of the dreaded bat disease, Schehr pointed out that the mere presence of people, even engaged in quiet activity, may unnecessarily arouse bats causing them to use 30 to 60 days worth of precious fat reserves that are necessary to sustain them until their insect diet is again available.“Bat hibernacula that become gated with bat-friendly gates often see a dramatic increase in hibernating bat numbers,” Schehr noted. The DNR has been in contact with a large number of landowners around the state in an effort to preserve bat hibernacula and keep it free from white nose syndrome. The department works with resources in a variety of ways to provide help to the landowners, according to Schehr. Another good thing in combating the disease and preserving tranquil bat hibernacula is that most people don’t know the location of caves and mines, Schehr noted.“We are interested in locating large numbers of bats, either in summer roost habitat or in caves and mines,” Schehr said. “If people have questions or want information, they can call the bat hotline at 608-266-5216 or e-mail DNRbats@wisconsin.gov”For his part, local property owner Hans Verick is satisfied with the bat-friendly gate placed over the entrance to the Star Valley Cave on his property in Utica Township.“I am in full support of it,” Verick said when contacted about the work done on the entrance of the cave. Verick, along with his neighbors John and Roger Weeks, worked side-by-side with the DNR personnel in installing the bat-friendly gate.Verick hopes by telling this story to the public now, people, who don’t realize the cave is closed and gated, will be saved a trip to the site. He believes the lack of visits will help in not waking the bats and disturbing their hibernation.
Verick said while some cave visitors left garbage and graffiti in the cave, other visitors were very responsible to the point of bringing garbage out of the cave. After posting and signing the cave against trespassing, Verick saw the gate as the next step in securing it and the bats inside from further disturbance.