Indiana's Wyandotte Cave Shares History with the Endangered Indiana Bat
By Lori Pruitt
Bloomington Indiana Field Office
To commemorate the 40th anniversary of the Endangered Species Act, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service is issuing articles that highlight endangered species conservation in each state. This article focuses on Indiana. More about the Endangered Species Act 40th anniversary and other endangered species conservation articles can be found at http://www.fws.gov/endangered/ESA40/index.html
This year marks the 40th anniversary of the Endangered Species Act, but some species have been recognized as endangered for almost 50 years. The Indiana bat (Myotis sodalis) was among the first 78 species to gain federal protection under the Endangered Species Protection Act of 1966, a precursor to today's Endangered Species Act.
There were approximately 1 million Indiana bats surviving in the wild at the time the species was listed. This figure sounds plentiful, but as with many endangered species, it is important to look at populations in an historic context. Biologists estimate that at one time, the Indiana bat was possibly one of the most abundant mammals on earth, numbering in the tens of millions.
Individual caves, including Wyandotte Cave in Indiana, likely supported millions. Wyandotte is a large and complex cave, typical of other caves known to support tremendous numbers of Indiana bats. These large caves often attract humans. Wyandotte provides a long, colorful example of the shared history of Indiana bats and people.
Native Americans used Wyandotte Cave over 3,000 years ago for shelter and mining chert and other minerals. Early settlers also mined the cave for Epsom salts and saltpeter, which was used to make gunpowder, during the War of 1812. Later, entrepreneurs stored barrels of onions in the cave to corner the onion market...the venture failed, but the smell of onions lingered for over 30 years. If folklore can be believed, Wyandotte may even be inhabited by the ghost of a counterfeiter who met his end in the cave. Through these various human uses, the Indiana bat has endured. However, one chapter in the cave's history has come close to eradicating the bats—opening the cave to tourism.
Wyandotte became a commercial tourist attraction in the 1850s—its large size and spectacular formations made it one of the grandest show caves in the country. As visitation increased, the owners modified the cave, enlarging passages to open new areas and installing gates to control access. The combined effect of these alterations, which changed the cave's air temperature and hindered the bats' access, along with disturbance from visitors, devastated the bat population. By the early 1950s, bat numbers at Wyandotte declined to about 15,000. By the mid-1950s, after construction of a stone wall in the cave entrance, the population plummeted to as few as 500 bats.
In 1966, the Endangered Species Protection Act was passed. Listing the Indiana bat as an endangered species focused attention and research on causes of its decline. The Indiana Department of Natural Resources purchased the cave and began managing to reverse declines, including removal of the stone wall. By 1991, the Indiana bat population increased to 13,000.
Today, staff at O'Bannon Woods State Park, home to Wyandotte Cave, continue to manage the cave for the bat's continued recovery. Wyandotte now supports almost 57,000 Indiana bats—one of the three largest populations of the species. Efforts of the state of Indiana, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service and conservation partners have paid off. Unfortunately, white-nose syndrome, a disease devastating Indiana bats and other cave-hibernating bats, was confirmed in Wyandotte in 2011. Wyandotte has become a major hub of white-nose syndrome research, providing information that may help manage the disease.
Despite these conservation challenges, many people are dedicated to ensuring the long legacy of Indiana bats in Wyandotte Cave continues. These bats have survived dramatic changes to its habitat through the years—mining, onions, torch-bearing tourists, and possibly even a ghost. Biologists are dedicated to ensuring the species overcomes white-nose syndrome and continues on the path toward recovery.