The loss of 500,000 bats would means 2.4 million pounds of mosquitos and bugs that aren't eaten in a year, according to Richard Kirk, nongame and endangered species coordinator for the Tennessee Wildlife Resources Agency.
All Tennessee caves now are closed to the public in order to stave off the spread of white-nose syndrome in the state bat population, state and federal officials announced Monday.
White-nose syndrome is a white fungus that appears on hibernating bats' faces, ears, wings and feet. The rapidly spreading fungus causes infected bats to lose weight and leave hibernation prematurely in search of food, according to wildlife officials. The bats usually starve because their main source of food -- insects -- are not available during winter.
David Todd, State Forest System unit leader, said the hundreds of now-closed state caves, tunnels, sinkholes and abandoned mines were used primarily for recreation. He said some cavers were disappointed or angry, but most have been understanding.
Tom Womack, a spokesman with the Tennessee Department of Agriculture, said the closures went into effect July 1 after several months of deliberation.
The U.S. Forest Service already had closed thousands of caves and abandoned mines in 33 states, including the Cherokee National Forest and the Great Smoky Mountains National Park, to prevent the spread of the fungus.
Wildlife officials said the fungus already has killed nearly 500,000 bats in the Northeast and has been discovered in bat populations as far South as Virginia.
"It looked like it was coming this way," Mr. Todd said. "So, that definitely played a big part in this decision."