In observance of Bat Week, an internationally recognized weeklong focus to raise awareness about the important role bats play in our environment, New York State Department of Environmental Conservation (DEC) Commissioner Basil Seggos is urging outdoor adventurers to avoid cave and mine sites that may serve as seasonal homes for hibernating bats.

Human disturbance is especially harmful to the state’s bat populations since the arrival of the disease known as white-nose syndrome, a fungus that has killed more than 90 percent of bats at hibernation sites in New York due to how closely bats congregate in caves during winter months.

“New York’s bat populations are highly susceptible to disturbances caused by cave explorers and other outdoor enthusiasts,” Commissioner Seggos said. “Even a single, seemingly quiet visit to a cave can cause bats to temporarily increase their metabolism and expend significantly more energy than normal. If cave explorers encounter hibernating bats while underground, I encourage them to leave the area as quickly and quietly as possible. It would be better for the bats if explorers stayed out of the caves altogether.”

DEC reminds the public to follow all posted notices restricting seasonal access to caves and mines. When bats are disturbed during hibernation it forces them to raise their body temperature, depleting fat reserves. This stored fat is the only source of energy available to the bats until the weather warms in spring.

Bat Week is observed through Oct. 31, and is organized by representatives from conservation groups and government agencies in the United States and Canada.

Two species of bats are currently protected under federal and State endangered species law. The Indiana bat, which is sparsely distributed across New York, is a federally endangered bat listed before white-nose syndrome began affecting bat populations. The northern long-eared bat is protected as a threatened species under federal and New York State Endangered Species law. The current population for this formerly common bat is approximately one percent of its previous size, making the species the most severely affected by white-nose syndrome. Nonetheless, northern long-eared bats are still widely distributed in New York. Their presence has been documented in most of the 100 or so caves and mines that serve as bat hibernation sites in the state.

Anyone entering a northern long-eared bat hibernation site from Oct. 1 through April 30, the typical hibernation period for bats, may be subject to prosecution.

There is currently no treatment for bats suffering from white-nose syndrome. Along with the New York State Department of Health, DEC is partnering with researchers from the National Wildlife Health Center in Madison, Wisconsin, and experts at several universities across the country to better understand the disease and develop a treatment. This collaborative effort helped identify that reducing disturbances at hibernation sites during the winter can help the remaining animals survive. For more information about white-nose syndrome, visit the White-Nose Syndrome Response Team website.