CLARKSBURG, W.Va. (WBOY) — Did you know that it is illegal to go cave exploring in the Mon National Forest? It’s not because the forest wants to discourage outdoor recreation, but instead, because it wants to protect the bat populations in the state.

In June 2013, the Monongahela National Forest closed all of its caves to visitors, making “entering or being in or using any cave on National Forest System lands” prohibited. The order was due to expanding White-nose Syndrome cases within protected and endangered species of bats. The order includes parts of Barbour, Grant, Greenbrier, Nicholas, Pendleton, Pocahontas, Preston, Randolph, Tucker and Webster counties in West Virginia.

The only people who are permitted to enter the forest-owned caves are:

  • Persons with a permit specifically authorizing the otherwise prohibited act or omission
  • Any Federal, State, or local officer, or member of any organized rescue or fire fighting force in the performance of an official duty

White-nose Syndrome is a fungus that is primarily spread from bat to bat within habitats. However, according to the U.S. Geological Survey, the fungus can be spread accidentally from cave to cave on human clothes or gear.

The disease causes a visible white fungal growth on bats’ wings and muzzles; it infects bats during their hibernation in caves and is fatal in many cases, killing millions of bats, according to the National Park Service. For those who plan to use cave gear not on Mon Forest land, you can learn how to make sure your shoes, bags and gear are clean of the fungus here. But in general, the best way to protect West Virginia’s four species of endangered bats is to stay out of closed and infested caves.

According to Monongahela National Forest Public Affairs Officer Kelly Bridges, all cave entrances on forest-owned land are marked as closed with signs. However, some caves also have entrances on private land, making it harder for the forest to close the caves and monitor who goes inside.

Bowden Cave in Randolph County is one such cave and has an easily accessible entrance that is owned privately. Similarly, both entrances to the Sinks of Gandy, also in Randolph County, are privately owned, and the owners allow visitors, according to Elkins-Randolph County Tourism.

If there is a development or new information about White-nose Syndrome, the order of closure says that it could be rescinded, making caves on Monongahela National Forest land available again.

For a list of West Virginia Cave Conservation-protected caves that are open and free to explore, click here.

(Photos: Kyle Toby from Wikimedia Commons)