The white nose syndrome fungus has decimated bat populations in the northeast and has been found in two sites in Missouri, one site in western Oklahoma and several sites in Tennessee. However, there have been no findings of the syndrome in bat populations in Illinois, Kentucky, Indiana or Ohio. The sporadic pattern has led biologists to believe the fungus is being spread by humans traveling from cave to cave rather than migrating bats.

The white nose syndrome fungus has decimated bat populations in the northeast and has been found in two sites in Missouri, one site in western Oklahoma and several sites in Tennessee.

However, there have been no findings of the syndrome in bat populations in Illinois, Kentucky, Indiana or Ohio. The sporadic pattern has led biologists to believe the fungus is being spread by humans traveling from cave to cave rather than migrating bats.

"It could be we have done a good job in keeping caves closed to people who could have brought it in on their gear or clothing. It could mean we are doing a real good job at keeping people out," said Rod McLanahan, wildlife biologist for the Shawnee National Forest Hidden Springs Ranger District.

All federally and state-owned caves in Illinois are closed to visitors. Some more popular caves are being gated.

The cave at Cave Hill in Saline County, also known as Equality Cave, was ahead of the game. The U.S. Forest Service decided to gate the cave in 2006 due to suspicions someone was shooting rare bats with a pellet gun. The original plan was to study bat populations for two years to decide if the cave could be reopened, but white nose syndrome hit bat populations in New York in 2007, killing about 98 percent of some hibernating colonies.

The fungus that causes white nose syndrome is a new fungus for North America that has been dubbed geomyces destructans.

Bats show signs of the disease with white fungus especially around the area of their nose. There are many questions about the effect of the fungus. What is known is it causes bats to leave their hibernacula in the winter and fly around outside until they apparently starve to death.

"We know a quarter of a million bats have died. We are concerned that in five to 10 years little brown bats, which are one of the most common bats in North America, may become endangered as well as others," McLanahan said.

However, there is a theory white nose may not be as destructive in Southern Illinois as the more northern states because, climate wise, it has more in common with the southeast than northeast.

"We don't have as long and as cold a winter. If they get hungry and come out to feed we have longer spells of warm weather so they may be able to weather it, we don't know," McLanahan said.

McLanahan and other biologists are sending off samples taken from bats' wings and from the caves last fall for testing by Western Illinois University. Biologists will be sampling, testing and banding bats this summer and fall.

"It could be that it's here and we just haven't verified it, yet. This will be a telling winter," McLanahan said.

In good news, bat netting and surveying at Cave Hill near Equality since the gate was built has revealed there are more bats using the cave than suspected, McLanahan said.

The first survey after the gate was installed revealed 20 to 30 southeastern myotis bats. In January of this year while looking for white nose the team counted 125 southeastern myotis bats.

"There has been a five-fold increase since we gated it," McLanahan said.

And in other good bat news Cave Springs Cave in Hardin County near Rosiclare -- a privately owned cave that permits no visitors -- just last month been found to host a large number of the federally endangered gray bats.

"The first week of June we found the first gray bat summer maternity colony in Illinois," McLanahan said.

His team estimated there were 3,500 females, males and young bats in the colony that have likely always been there, but had never been found.

"They've been there, but nobody had been in early enough to catch them. You have to swim in some places. It's a tough cave," McLanahan said.

The Forest Service has decided to put up two additional gates to caves in the region. They are gating Rich's Cave in Union County and Dutchman Cave or Jug Spring Cave in Johnson County.

Daily Register (Harrisburg, Ill.)