(WIVT/WBGH) – As Halloween quickly approaches, the New York State Department of Environmental Conservation is reminding the public to be cautious of bats this season.

Bat Week, or annual Halloween Week Observance, is an internationally recognized initiative to raise awareness about the critical role bats play in the environment. Held from October 24 to October 31, the week is organized by representatives from conservation groups and government agencies in the United States and Canada.

New York State Department of Environmental Conservation Commissioner Basil Seggos is encouraging outdoor enthusiasts to refrain from visiting caves and mines during the fall and winter months to protect the health of hibernating bats. Bats spend the winter hibernating in underground cavities as the relatively constant, warm temperatures protect them from the harsh winter temperatures above ground. While in hibernation, bat health tends to be vulnerable to human visitation and has become especially harmful since the arrival of white-nose syndrome, a fungus that has killed more than 90% of bats at hibernation sites across the state.

“Bats are circling around us this Halloween season, reminding us all to do our part to protect these important flying mammals,” said Seggos. “DEC is encouraging New Yorkers to help protect bats by avoiding caves or mines to prevent any unintentional harm to bats and safeguarding their habitats.”

If disturbed during hibernation, bats raise their body temperature which depletes their crucial fat reserves. This stored fat is the only source of energy available to the bats until the weather warms in the spring and insects are readily available. The more they are disturbed, the less likely they are to survive the long winter months underground without eating.

The DEC urges the public to follow all posted notices restricting access to caves and mines. However, if explorers do venture out and discover bats hibernating in a cave, they are advised to leave quickly and quietly to minimize disturbance.

Limiting tree removal to the hibernation period can also help protect bats from harm. Removing trees only between November 1 and March 31 throughout the state, or December 1 through February 28 in Suffolk County, offers the best protection for hibernating bats.

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. It was listed before white-nose syndrome later began affecting the population. The northern long eared bat is also listed as an endangered species under federal and New York State law. The current population is approximately 1% of its previous size and this species of bat is most severely affected by white-nose syndrome. They are widely distributed across New York and sightings have been documented in most of the state’s approximately 100 caves and mines serving as bat hibernation sites.

There is currently no treatment for bats suffering from white-nose syndrome. Experts from the New York State Department of Health, DEC, National Wildlife Health Center, and researchers from universities across the country have partnered to better understand the disease and develop a treatment.