MAQUOKETA, Iowa — Anyone who is planning to explore the caves at Maquoketa Caves State Park will have to be screened before they begin their exploring this spring.
The state Department of Natural Resources has issued a new policy that will require the screening in an attempt to prevent white nose syndrome, a fungus that affects bats.
The caves portion of the state park has been closed for two years because the DNR wanted to limit exposure of the bats to the fungus.
Rep. Brian Moore, R-Maquoketa, said the DNR plans to issue non-transferable wrist bands that will permit visitors access to the caves during their visit, following a screening process. Both Moore and Sen. Tod Bowman D-Maquoketa, have been meeting with the DNR to get the caves open again.
Both legislators said the number of visitors has dropped dramatically since 2009. It was routine for 200,000 people a year to visit the caves prior to the shutdown. Last year, it dropped to 40,000.
“That’s a big economic hit,” Bowman said.
Bowman said no confirmed cases of the white-nosed fungus have been found in Iowa. He said research has shown the fungus is transmitted bat-to-bat and not by human contact.
The caves are scheduled to open April 15 and will shut down Oct. 1 to allow the bats to hibernate. The rest of the state park will remain open year-round.
Although all the details have not been announced, the policy said the DNR plans to hire an employee to implement the screening process. Its goal will be to hire one of the seasonal workers or get assistance from the Jackson County Conservation Board and Friends of the Maquoketa Caves to do a screening.
The screening process will begin with an explanation of how the fungus is spread and where it is known to exist. Visitors who have not been in a cave or a mine east of the Missouri River in the past six years will be cleared.
The policy says anyone who has been in a cave or mine near the “known infected areas” will have to answer questions about the clothing they are wearing when they go to the caves. If a visitor could be at risk of transmitting the disease, he or she can decontaminate their clothing with a disinfectant cleaner. The treatment would be voluntary and self-administered, according to the policy.
Groups will be able to make arrangements with the park ranger ahead of their visit.
DNR officials said that in the spring 2011 they considered offering guided tours instead but decided they don’t have the staff or funds.
“Should the fungus be detected at Maquoketa Caves, it will likely change our approach from preventing it, to not letting it accidentally be carried out by visitors,” the policy states.