The famous caves at Maquoketa Caves State Park will re-open this spring. The caves were closed in 2010 to prevent the spread of a disease that threatened to wipe out the caves’ population of bats. Park Ranger Scott Dykstra says a screening process is being developed that will likely include a series of questions for visitors to the caves.
Dykstra says people who have been in other caves recently, even within two years, might be asked to disinfect their boots or change their clothes before they’ll be allowed to enter the Maquoketa caves. The bat-killing disease is called “white nose syndrome.”
A fungus causes it, and usually bats spread it to other bats, but humans can also play a role. Dykstra says park employees may give visitors a 5-to-10 minute talk about the caves and the 400 to 600 bats that hibernate in them every winter.
“Most people think, ‘Ew, bats. Who cares about bats?’ but they serve a really high purpose with everyday life that people don’t realize,” he says. “Maybe they’ll change their outlook of bats and they’ll want to try to protect them. When the disease does go through, it’s a 90-100% mortality rate and it eventually could cause some bats to go extinct.”
The park’s caves usually open around April 15th, but there is not yet a solid date for this year’s re-opening, as the screening policy needs to be finalized. After the caves were closed, yearly attendance at the park dropped from more than 200,000 people to about 40,000.