KNOXVILLE, Tenn. (WATE) — The Tennessee Wildlife Resources Agency is working to preserve the bat population in Tennessee.

Earlier this week, crews worked to gate a cave near Chattanooga at the Bear Hollow Mountain Wildlife Management Area. They’re trying to keep people, who have been waking up the endangered tri-colored bats during the winter while they should be hibernating, away from the cave.

If bats wake up too soon, before the bugs start showing up in the spring, they could die of starvation.

“The gate is a bat-friendly gate, [bats] can fly right over the top and through the bars on the part on the sides, it’s designed to let wildlife come and go but be a barrier to humans,” said Dustin Thames, TWRA regional biodiversity coordinator.

“We do have 11,500 caves in the state and only a subset are what we consider really a priority, critical habitat for these bat species. Because you do want people to have opportunities to explore. It is an amazing resource unique to Tennessee. We have more caves than anywhere else but in places like this where it’s a really critical habitat for rare or endangered species. It’s worthwhile for us to go to great efforts to protect these organisms,” said Cory Holliday, the Nature Conservancy – Cave and Karst.

In addition to human contact, the bat population has been declining in recent years because of the spread of white-nose syndrome, which is caused by a fungus spreading across North America.

Researchers are still looking to find treatments for infected bats and save these important animals.

“At one point in time before white-nose syndrome, they were the most common cave hibernating bat. So, 90% of the time if you went in a cave and saw a bat, it was a tri-colored bat. Unfortunately, the population has declined by about 70% in Tennessee,” said Thames.

According to the TWRA, bats are worth about $313 million a year just to farmers because of their hard work at eating insects that would otherwise ruin crops.