Caves on public property in Tennessee will remain closed through 2011. The Tennessee Wildlife Resources Agency is among the state agencies which agreed to voluntarily extend the closure, which first took effect July 1, 2009.
The closures are part of an effort to slow the spread of White Nose Syndrome (WNS) among bats. WNS is a fungus that spreads rapidly and can kill up to 90% of a bat population hibernating in an area in just two years.
It is believed that WNS is primarily transmitted between bats, however scientists also believe it can unknowingly be transferred from cave to cave on the clothing of visitors.
Bats affected by WNS come out of hibernation severely dehydrated and undernourished, making it unlikely they'll survive.
"When they wake up it uses up those energy reserves that they're drawing on normally. That happens over the course of the hibernation period and basically they starve to death," said Kirk Miles with TWRA.
Caves, sinkholes, tunnels, and abandoned mines on land owned by TWRA, TDEC, the Division of Forestry, and the Department of Agriculture were scheduled to open this summer. The closure will now last through June 30, 2011. The extra time will help authorities answer lingering questions regarding the impact of WNS in Tennessee.
"Now that we know its here, are we going to see the mortality rates that some of the other places are seeing?" Miles said.
The Great Smoky Mountains National Park, US Forest Service, and TVA have also closed caves on their properties.
Tennessee's first positive test for WNS came in February, 2010, in a bat from Sullivan County. Since then cases have been documented in five other counties, including Fentress and Blount Counties.