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MARYVILLE, Tenn. (AP) — Great Smoky Mountains National Park biologists are closing the Whiteoak Sink area to protect bats from the further spread of white-nose syndrome.
The Daily Times (http://bit.ly/1ry6PI9) reports the area will be closed through March 31.
Park biologists believe the dramatic decline they've seen in cave-dwelling bat populations throughout the park is due to the syndrome, which has killed more than 6 million bats across the eastern United States and Canada since 2006.
Smokies Wildlife Biologist Bill Stiver said the syndrome was first discovered in the park in 2010. He estimated the park's cave-dwelling bat populations have declined by 80 percent. The park is home to 11 species of bats.
"The impact has been devastating," he said. "We are doing everything we can to both slow the spread of the disease and protect the remaining animals by closing caves and areas near caves to the public."
Infected bats are marked by a white fungal growth on their nose, wings and tail membrane. Damage to skin tissue causes the bats to wake from hibernation during winter months and starve to death without food sources being available.
There are efforts to protect the bats, and even find a cure for the disease.
The Tennessee Chapter of the Nature Conservancy monitors and maintains an artificial bat cave that provides a safe environment for bat hibernation during the winter. It's intended to be an environment free of the fungus that causes the syndrome.
"We're also pursuing working with Bat Conservation International to identify cures for white-nose disease, basically looking at things like bacteria and fungi that could act as a bio-control and could attack the fungi that cause WNS," said Alex Wyss, director of conservation programs at the Conservancy.
Information from: The Daily Times, http://www.thedailytimes.com