By MIKE CORN

mcorn@dailynews.net

There aren't any caves or abandoned mines in the only national grasslands in Kansas, but the U.S. Forest Service included the Sunflower State in its emergency order banning public access, a move aimed at preventing the spread of white-nose fungus.

The fungal disease, which is decimating bat populations in the eastern half of the nation, has been found in Woodward County, Okla., about 25 miles from Kansas' southern border, and not far from roosting sites of Kansas bats.

The Forest Service order was issued Tuesday by Deputy Regional Forester Tony Dixon.

"Given the critical threat to bat populations that WNS poses, it is urgently necessary to take aggressive pre-emptive action to slow its spread," Dixon said in the order. "The potential for collapse of regional bat populations, and the ecological and economic impacts that could result, are critical concerns."

The order also affects caves and abandoned mines in Colorado, Wyoming, South Dakota and Nebraska.

Kansas is home to only one national grassland, the Cimarron National Grasslands in far southwest Kansas. Located within Morton and Stevens counties, it contains 108,175 acres.

Despite the lack of caves and abandoned mines in Kansas under the purview of the Forest Service, there are privately owned structures in the state.

There are about 800 known caves in Kansas, most small and on private land. There are 15 species of bats in Kansas, including the gray myotis of extreme southeastern Kansas, which is on the federal endangered species list. The pallid and Townsend's big-eared bats are on the state's species-in-need-of-conservation list.

The infected bat found in Oklahoma was a cave myotis, the first of its species to be found infected. The cave myotis is the most common bat in Kansas and overwinters in small caves.

For Janelle Smith, a spokeswoman for the Forest Service in Denver, inclusion of Kansas suggests how serious the threat is.

The white nose fungus continues to baffle scientists, even as it is decimating bat population.

Cave visitors, she said, are thought to have been responsible for "leapfrogging" the disease into the Oklahoma area.

Spelunkers are thought to somehow obtain traces of the fungus in one cave and then spread it to other unaffected caves.

Closing federal caves and abandoned mines to human activity could help slow that spread to western reaches of the U.S.

The idea, she said, is to implement a blanket closure order and then selectively open sites where the disease has already been introduced.

Part of the overall problem, Smith said, is it's not known where all the caves are located. Many, she said, are only known by cavers, who often protect the information much like someone who has a prime fishing spot.

A similar closure was announced by the Forest Service district that encompasses Oklahoma and Texas.