Visitors to a state park in northeast Iowa will soon be allowed to explore a number of caves that have been closed for two years because of a fungus that’s fatal to bats. Scott Dykstra, park manager at Maquoketa Caves State Park, says the fungus, called White Nose Syndrome (WNS), has contributed to the deaths of more than 5.5 million bats across eastern North America since it was first detected in 2006.

Visitors to the park in Jackson County will now attend a brief educational program about WNS. before they’re given a tour of the caves. Dykstra says anyone who has toured other caves in recent years, and may be wearing the same hiking gear, could be asked to disinfect their boots or change their clothes before entering the caves.

WNS is known to spread from bat to bat, but could be carried by cave explorers from one location to another by their footwear or clothing. Dykstra says it’s critical for officials to reduce the risks of WNS and protect bats from extinction.

“The bat species is important in the ecosystem, not only for us but for the environment, in the fact that they’ll eat up to three to ten times their body weight in bugs a night,” Dykstra says. “That impact for us is the mosquito. One little bat a night eating three to ten times its body weight in mosquitoes…that’s quite a few mosquitoes that we don’t have to swat off of us.”

After the caves were closed in 2010, Dykstra said yearly attendance at the park dropped from more than 200,000 people to about 40,000.

“My campground, when the caves were open, was full every weekend,” Dykstra said. “The last two summers, the campground never reached full capacity.”

Maquoketa Caves is hiring extra summer help to provide the education program and guided tours. A grand opening is planned for April 14.