By Laura Zuckerman
SALMON, Idaho (Reuters) - Conservation and organic farming groups alarmed by the spread of a disease decimating bats on Wednesday threatened to sue the government within 30 days unless it immediately closes caves and abandons mines on public lands.
White-nose syndrome, named for the telltale fungus that appears on the muzzles of bats, has killed more than a million bats in the eastern United States since its discovery in upstate New York in 2006, according to government research.
The fungus has been detected in 19 states across the northeast and mid-Atlantic regions. Scientists say it is only a matter of time before it spreads westward to infect bats that hibernate in caves and abandoned mines.
"We're facing a number of bat species probably going extinct within a few decades if things don't change," said Mollie Matteson, advocate for the Center for Biological Diversity, the lead group behind the threatened lawsuit.
The fungus is mostly transmitted from bat to bat. But government biologists say it also can be transferred by caving enthusiasts and others whose underground explorations may bring them into contact with infected bats or with the spores left behind after white-nose syndrome killed off a colony.
Government land managers have already closed caves and abandoned mines in most states east of the Mississippi.
The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service has recommended cutting off access to caves in states where the fungus has been detected as well as adjacent states. But it has stopped short of advising nationwide closures.
The groups contend piecemeal closures are inadequate to address what the government itself has described as an unprecedented wildlife disease that is expected to infect colonies in the West and Pacific Northwest.
Organic farming groups behind the proposed action say the syndrome could devastate their industry along with the bats.
The pest-control benefits of insect-eating bats are estimated to save agriculture in the United States from $3.7 billion to $53 billion a year, according to a recent study by Boston University and other scientists.
Closures - including proposals now under consideration on public forest lands in Montana and northern Idaho - have been hotly contested by cavers, with 10,000 members and 250 caving clubs organized under the National Speleological Society.
Mike McEachern, head of the Northern Rocky Mountain Grotto, a caving club, said those organizations are committed to preserving caves and the bats that inhabit them. But he predicted a debate over closing caves would be contentious.
"Most of the caves in the West are on federal property and asking to close all caves is like asking the government to close the ocean," McEachern said.
Ann Froschauer, national white-nose syndrome spokeswoman for the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, said the government is scrambling to gather the science that may help combat the killer bat disease.
"We're looking at potentially losing over half of our bat species; we're trying not to create a new potential epicenter out West," she said.
(Editing by Dan Whitcomb and Greg McCune)