A popular attraction at a state park in northeast Iowa will remain closed this summer because of concerns about the spread of a fungus fatal to bats. White-nose syndrome (WNS) has killed about one million bats across the eastern United States since 2006.
The caves at Maquoketa Caves State Park in Jackson County were first closed to the public last spring. John Maehl, with the Iowa Department of Natural Resources, says WNS has yet to be detected in Iowa, but closing the caves diminishes the risk.
“It’s just such a serious issue to have all of those bats to contract this and the fatality rate is so high…it’s worth erring on the safe side on this particular decision,” Maehl said. WNS is known to spread bat to bat, but officials believe it might inadvertently be spread from footwear and clothing worn by cave explorers. Maehl says other states allow guided tours or limited access to caves, but he doesn’t believe that’s an option for the Maquoketa Caves.
“There’s really no structure in place to control the activities there. You don’t go through a gate house where you check in and you pay a little bit to use the park and you don’t go through a visitor’s center before you have access to the caves,” Maehl explained. “We don’t have guided cave tours like most every other publicly controlled cave system.”
Staffing shortages also restrict that option, according to Maehl. Prior to last spring, the Maquoketa Caves State Park drew an estimated 200,000 visitors per year. Maehl says it was common for all of the park’s campsites to be reserved every weekend of the summer. That changed with the closing of the caves.
“Last year, it was dramatic what we saw. You could come through on a weekend and there might be three or four cars there and half the campsites are available,” Maehl said. He says it’s unclear when the caves might be reopened to public access, but other features – such as the trails, campgrounds, shelter and playground at Maquoketa Caves – remain open.