by Adam Ghassemi
CLARKSVILLE, Tenn. – Dunbar Cave State Park gets people close to nature and wildlife in the middle of Clarksville. But its most popular attraction, Dunbar Cave and the bats that inhabit it, have been behind a locked gate and inaccessible to visitors for years.
"It's the mystery of what's inside," said park visitor Charles Shaffer. "It's kind of disappointing to see states to close such exhibits, especially with something that's kind of uncontrollable."
Scientists first discovered a white, puffy fungus afflicting bats in New York state in 2006. A few years ago, it showed up in Tennessee. They say White Nose Syndrome irritates bats and causes them to wake-up during winter months when they should be hibernating.
This winter has been deadliest, according to Tennessee Wildlife Resource Agency Bat Coordinator Brian Flock.
"They're basically going out looking for insects to try to feed because this, they've used up a lot of their fat reserves," Flock said.
State and federal experts have even worked with The Nature Conservancy to build a fake cave to figure out how White Nose Syndrome spreads.
Officials with TDEC, the state's Department of Environment and Conservation, said they've found dead bats near Dunbar Cave's entrance within the last 30 days. Still, they are considering reopening some caves to public tours.
Even though the fungus is still a problem, people could go back inside as long as they don't disturb the bats, Flock said.
Scientists said people don't give bats White Nose Syndrome, they only help spread the fungus. Visitors will likely have wear protective clothing or boots to stop spreading it.
TDEC spokeswoman Shannon Ashford said in an email they are considering reopening a limited number of caves, including Dunbar, in the spring or summer of 2014.
That means Shaffer and other visitors could soon go on tours to see a part of the state that's been completely off-limits.
"People love the earth. They love seeing places they haven't seen before," Shaffer said.