LOUISVILLE, Ky. (AP) — A disease responsible for killing millions of bats in North America has spread to caves at two state parks in eastern Kentucky that are homes to federally endangered bats, parks officials said Friday.
White-nose syndrome has been detected in caves at Carter Caves State Resort Park and Kingdom Come State Park, said state parks department spokesman Gil Lawson. Small numbers of bats have died so far from the disease, he said.
It's the latest red flag in the fight to prevent the spread of the disease in Kentucky, home to large numbers of bats that hibernate in a vast network of caves.
The disease has been found in 10 Kentucky counties — Bell, Breckinridge, Carter, Christian, Edmonson, Hart, Letcher, Trigg, Warren and Wayne, Lawson said. White-nose was confirmed earlier this year at Cumberland Gap National Historic Park and in one of the caves at Mammoth Cave National Park.
Diseased bats were found recently at Carter Caves in caves that are not open to the public. The three caves were closed in 2008 as part of a pre-emptive effort to stop the spread of the fungus causing the disease, Lawson said.
Carter Caves naturalist Coy Ainsley said the discovery was regretful but inevitable given the area's large number of bats.
"We are not surprised by this," he said. "We knew it was coming. It was just how long was it going to take to get here. We are taking precautions to try and prevent other large jumps say from Carter Caves to a state or two away."
The Carter Caves system, near Olive Hill, is home to about 40,000 Indiana bats, which are federally endangered. The majority of those are found in one of the closed-to-the-public caves where the disease was detected, Lawson said.
State parks officials plan to continue allowing public tours in two caves at Carter Caves State Resort Park, he said.
As a precaution, visitors are required to disinfect their footwear and not wear clothing that was worn in other caves. Those steps began in fall 2011 as part of the effort to limit the spread.
Meanwhile, a bat with the disease was found early this year at Line Fork Cave at Kingdom Come State Park during a routine cave survey, Lawson said. The Letcher County cave is gated and not open to tourists. It's also home to the federally protected Indiana bats.
White-nose syndrome, named for the sugary smudges found on affected bats' snouts, prompts bats to wake from their winter hibernation and die when they fly into the winter landscape in a futile search for food. First detected in 2006 in New York, the fungal infection has killed millions of bats as it spread from the Northeast.
Scientists fear the disease could push some species to extinction and dramatically reduce the population of an animal that farmers depend on for natural pest control.
There is no known cure for the disease, which biologists believe is spread by infected bats.
The disease does not pose a threat to people, pets or livestock.
Earlier this year, tests confirmed that a bat found in one of the caves at Mammoth Cave National Park had the disease. The northern long-eared bat was found in Long Cave, an undeveloped cave that's not connected to Mammoth Cave in south-central Kentucky. Long Cave hasn't been open to visitors for more than 80 years.
Bats are seen as playing a key role in the health of ecosystems. They are the primary predators of night-flying insects, and studies show that insect-eating bats save billions of dollars for U.S. agriculture each year.