Endangered Indiana bats at Indiana's Wyandotte Cave have endured mining, torch-bearing tourists and maybe even a ghost. Photo by Andrew King/USFWS.
To commemorate the 40th anniversary of the Endangered Species Act, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service is issuing weekly articles that highlight endangered species conservation in each state. This week’s 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/
This year we celebrate 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 one of 78 species on the first list of endangered species, created under the Endangered Species Protection Act of 1966—precursor to our current Endangered Species Act.
There were about 1 million Indiana bats at the time the species was listed – that sounds like a lot, but as with many endangered species, it’s important to look at populations in an historic context. At one time, there were probably tens of millions of Indiana bats, possibly one of the most abundant mammals ever on earth. Individual caves, including Wyandotte Cave in Indiana, likely supported millions. Wyandotte is a large and complex cave, typical of caves known to have supported tremendous numbers of Indiana bats. These large caves also attracted another mammal … humans. Wyandotte provides a colorful example of the shared history of Indiana bats and people.
Native Americans started using Wyandotte Cave over 3,000 years ago, mining chert and other minerals, as well as using the cave for shelter. Early settlers mined the cave for Epsom salts and during the War of 1812 for saltpeter, which was used to make gunpowder. Later, entrepreneurs stored barrels of onions in the cave to corner the onion market ... the venture failed but the smell of onions endured 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. While we don’t know how these human uses affected Wyandotte’s bats, we do know the bats endured. However, one chapter in the cave’s history came close to wiping out 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 had dropped 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.
The year 1966 was a good one for Wyandotte’s bats -- the Indiana Department of Natural Resources purchased the cave and the Endangered Species Protection Act was passed. Listing the Indiana bat focused attention and research on causes of its decline. The state began managing to reverse declines, including removal of the stone wall. The Indiana bat population responded -- increasing to 13,000 by 1991. Through the years, research has led to better understanding and that knowledge has been used to manage the cave for the bat’s continued recovery.
Fast forward to 2013, O'Bannon Woods State Park is home to Wyandotte Cave and the Park staff are careful stewards of the cave and its bats. Wyandotte now supports almost 57,000 Indiana bats, one of the three largest populations of the species. Efforts of the state of Indiana, the 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 WNS research, providing information that may help manage the disease.
Despite challenges, many people are dedicated to ensuring the long legacy of Indiana bats in Wyandotte Cave continues. These bats endured a lot through the years … mining, onions, torch-bearing tourists, and possibly even a ghost. We hope they will also endure white-nose syndrome.
More information about the Indiana bat and other endangered and threatened species in the Midwest can be found at www.fws.gov/midwest/endangered