Bat-killing fungus has Texas considering closing caves

Texas officials are considering closing the state's caves out of fear that a deadly fungus associated with the growing number of bat deaths in the Northeastern U.S. may spread to this part of the country.

White-nose syndrome, so named because the white fungus appears on bats' noses, has spread rapidly throughout the Northeast since it was first discovered in New York in the winter of 2006-07. It hasn't been discovered in Texas, but it has already reached 10 states, including Oklahoma.

While many people may be creeped out by bats, the nocturnal creatures are considered crucial to the agricultural community. For Texas, home to 33 bat species, widespread deaths could be devastating. A 2007 study found that bats help control pests that cost U.S. farmers $1 billion annually.

"At this point we're considering whether we should be closing caves on state-owned lands," said John Young, a Texas Parks and Wildlife mammalogist. "We have a number of them on state-owned lands."

The U.S. Forest Service has already closed caves and old mines from Oklahoma to Maine. But the agency has no caves in its national forests or grasslands in Texas, spokeswoman Gay Ippolito said.

The situation has become serious enough that two subcommittees of the U.S. House Natural Resources Committee are planning to address it in a hearing Thursday.

Last week, Bat Conservation International hosted a conference in Austin to prepare for the hearings and bring experts from across the country to discuss the subject.

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