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RUSSELLVILLE, Ark. (AP) â€” The U.S. Forest Service has closed nearly all its caves in Arkansas to the public in hopes of curbing the spread of white-nose syndrome, a fungus that can be fatal to many bats.
The closure runs until 2019, allowing scientists to conduct tests and prevent the spread of the disease, which has killed nearly 7 million bats in New England and mid-Atlantic states, the Forest Service said. All Arkansas caves on U.S. Forest grounds are affected, except for Blanchard Springs Caverns in Stone County.
Scientists believe the fungus causes bats to wake up during hibernation and eventually die from starvation. The disease can be spread when spores attach to the clothing or equipment belonging to people visiting the caves.
"We saw it marching toward Arkansas," said C.J. Norvell, a Forest Service spokesman for the Ozark, St. Francis and Ouachita forests. "It's hitting the top tier of those Southern states right now, and it doesn't look like things are going to change any time soon."
The fungus was confirmed in Marion and Stone counties earlier this year. Norvell told the Arkansas Democrat-Gazette (http://bit.ly/1quxGoF ) that officials decided to enact a five-year closure after repeatedly renewing single-year closures for most of the past decade.
Anyone who violates the order could face fines of up to $5,000 or six months in prison.
"We beseech everyone to stay out of caves and spread the word that national forest caves are closed for the sake of our bats," said Steve Duzan, Environmental Coordinator for the Ozark-St. Francis National Forests. "With millions of bats already dead, it is more important than ever that we remain vigilant."