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A man with a beard looks closely at an insect with a magnifying glass
Information icon Zoologist David Withers of the Tennessee Department of Environment and Conservation examines a Sequatchie caddisfly, an insect that lives in only a very few spots in Tennessee. Photo by Phil Kloer, USFWS.

Protecting the rare

Service, partners and volunteers team up to restore a small Tennessee park that is home to a rare insect and an endangered snail

Sequatchie Cave State Natural Area, Tennessee — A royal snail is about the size of a match head. You could be standing in a few inches of water with lots of royal snails at your feet, look down, and not even see them.

A tiny snail the size of a pinhead on the tip of a biologist's finger
The royal snail, found only in one county in Tennessee, was declared in endangered in 1994. Photo by David Withers, Tennessee Department of Environment and Conservation.

“If it looks like a caterpillar turd but it starts moving, that’s a royal snail,” cracks David Withers, a zoologist with the Tennessee Department of Environment and Conservation.

A Sequatchie caddisfly, by comparison, is a lot bigger. A larva is about an inch long, and before it sprouts wings, later in life, is pretty much indistinguishable from a tiny twig.

Two twig-like insects in a small plastic bowl
David Withers shows off seven royal snails and two caddisfly larvae in a medicine cap. When he is done, he carefully places them back exactly where they were. Photo by Phil Kloer, USFWS.

One of the only two places these two are known to co-exist is Sequatchie Cave State Natural Area, a 12-acre park a few miles west of Chattanooga that includes Sequatchie Cave. The peaceful, shallow water that flows out of the cave provides ideal conditions for the bug and snail to call home.

Withers bends down and plucks a caddisfly out of the spring. He’s an expert on the species, but you would think he’s seeing one for the first time from his enthusiasm.

“Awesome! Look at this guy!” he exclaims. “Look at these red and black legs.” He places it carefully in a white plastic lid from a pharmacy medicine bottle, which will be his specimen home for the morning.

The royal snail is only found in Marion County. In 1994, the Service declared the royal snail an endangered species under the Endangered Species Act (ESA).

In 2015, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service (Service) ruled that the caddisfly did not need the protection of the ESA because it was not in danger of becoming extinct in the foreseeable future. It remains a rare insect however, and the Service would like to ensure ESA protections are not needed in the future.

“The caddisfly is a resilient little critter, eking out a living on just a few hundred yards of this small stream” says Drew Becker, ESA recovery coordinator for the Service’s Southeast region. “It makes sense to take care of a place like this so we don’t have to list it. It’s proactive conservation.”

And plenty of partners have stepped up to take care of the little Sequatchie park.

Earlier this year, the Service awarded $52,500 to the Tennessee Wildlife Resources Agency, and the state of Tennessee added at least $37,500. Then a combination of paid and volunteer labor went to work on major improvements at the park.

For years, local families have used the spring for recreation and for drinking water. Inadvertently, some of these activities were damaging the stream bank, and there was the danger of oil and gas from vehicles running into the water where the two tiny critters live. So Tennessee workers regraded the bank, installed stone steps for access, and installed boulders, discouraging off-road vehicles from entering the stream.

A little stream with several rocks and fallen branches
The peaceful, shallow water that flows out of Sequatchie Cave provides a perfect habitat for the endangered royal snail and the Sequatchie caddisfly. The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, the state of Tennessee and volunteers have been working to make sure the spring stays pristine. Photo by Phil Kloer, USFWS.

Workers also have been clearing out invasive plants and planting native plants and flowers.

“What the Service has helped do here has made an enormous difference,” says Philroy Collins, who lives less than half a mile from the park. If anyone knows the park, what it used to be and what it has become, it’s Collins, who bleeds Tennessee orange.

“I’ve lived here since 1963,” he says. “I would come down there and do work with my daddy. After church we’d go down there and have fried chicken and have a good time.

“About 2009 I went down there and said. ‘What in the world has happened to this place?’ There was high grass and weeds, needles, condoms, trash everywhere. This is one of my favorite places in the world. So I took it upon myself to start cleaning it up. It took me about a year and a half to get it back the way I wanted it to be.

“The state of Tennessee wanted to pay me to look after the grounds, but I said. ‘No sir, it’s not about money to me, it’s a passion. It’s a love for the place.’”

Collins is the park’s volunteer groundskeeper and steward, and is frequently there several times a day, working or talking to folks who have stopped by. He says tourism has recently increased a lot, due mainly to word of mouth, and he now sees out-of-state license plates all the time.

He and Bill Welch, another Sequatchie County resident, have been working on an information kiosk that will have photos and educational information about the cave, the springs, and the animals that live there.

A rocky cliff with a cave
Sequatchie Cave in southern Tennessee provides spring water that is home to two very rare species and is becoming a welcoming spot for tourists. Sequatchie was a Cherokee chief. Photo by Phil Kloer, USFWS.

They plan to have the kiosk finished by September 29, when the state of Tennessee plans a “soft opening” of the newly renovated park.

Collins will be there with his granddaughters, ages 4, 6 and 8, who visit the spring regularly with him. “They go in the water and they can find and identify caddisflies and royal snails. I want them to enjoy it like I did with my daddy,” he says.

The mission of the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service is working with others to conserve, protect, and enhance fish, wildlife, plants, and their habitats for the continuing benefit of the American people. For more information on our work and the people who can make it happen, visit Connect with the Service on Facebook, follow our tweets, watch the YouTube Channel and download photos from Flickr.

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