Southeastern Cave Conservancy Buys Wolf River Cave, Establishes 22-Acre Preserve

We are pleased to announce that the Southeastern Cave Conservancy Inc., in partnership with The Nature Conservancy , Tennessee Chapter (TNC) and Bat Conservation International (BCI), has purchased Wolf River Cave and 33 acres of surrounding karst land near Jamestown in Fentress County Tennessee. The cave and surrounding property were part of a family farm that was sold at auction on July 20, 2002. Our cave conservation partnership was able to outbid other potential buyers with a winning bid for the cave tract of $74,000. The purchase was completed on Friday, August 16, in Cookeville ,Tennessee, when SCCi Chair Diane Cousineau and Treasurer Buddy Lane delivered the check and signed the papers. The SCCi now holds title to the property and will manage it under a joint agreement with TNC.

Wolf River Cave is more than eight miles long and is one of the most significant caves in North America in terms of its biology, anthropology, archeology and zoology. According to Jan F. Simek, professor of Anthropology at the University of Tennessee, Wolf River Cave contains the oldest known human footprints found in the dark zone of a cave. Also preserved in the cave are extinct Jaguar tracks and skeletons.

The cave also contains Tennessee’s second-largest hibernation colony of the rarest endangered bat species in the Southeast – the Indiana bat. According to a survey conducted by Tennessee Technological University, the winter colony numbers between 2,400 and 2,500 bats. One of the first species to be placed on the federal endangered species list, Indiana bats hibernate in caves from September through early April. The cave is also known to house a small number of federally listed endangered Gray Bats in the summer, as well as a few Rafinesque’s Big-Eared Bats. In addition, cavers have reported observing blind crayfish and cave beetles.

The Nature Conservancy , Tennessee Chapter and SCCi operate under a Memorandum of Understanding for joint projects involving caves and cave protection in Tennessee.  Along with its other goals and objectives, the ability to act quickly and in concert to purchase caves in immediate danger is one reason the MOU was implemented.  In a land auction participants often have little time to prepare and prices can soar above appraised values.  This important acquisition would not have taken place without the financial assistance of TNC and Bat Conservation International.  Gabby Call, Director of Protection for TNC’s Tennessee Chapter, and Jim Kennedy, Assistant Director of BCI’s North American Bat Conservation Partnership, were instrumental in securing the necessary financial support and in forging a successful partnership among the three organizations.

Over the past 5 years, TNC has invested significant conservation efforts toward the protection of Wolf River Cave, a Nature Conservancy eco-region priority site. Discussions with the landowners to protect the bats began in 1998 and continued for several years. The primary concern for the cave has always been protection of the endangered Indiana bats that hibernate there in the winter. In March 1999, Heather Garland – Cave Program Coordinator, and Gabby Call – Director of Land Acquisition, both with the The Nature Conservancy , Tennessee Chapter, forged a Cooperative Management Agreement between the Pile family heirs, TNC, Tennessee Wildlife Resource Agency (TWRA), and the Upper Cumberland Grotto (UCG). Later that summer cavers discovered a grisly massacre. Someone callously knocked approximately 40 bats, including many Indiana bats, off of the wall and killed them. As an emergency reaction to this incident, funding was secured from several partners including US Fish and Wildlife Service, BCI, and the Wallace Research Foundation, and the cave entrance was gated.

While TNC made significant progress in protecting the bats, there was still no permanent protection for the cave. Ownership of the property was distributed among eight family members, complicating the discussions. When agreement on the disposition of the farm could not be reached, the family decided to sell it at auction. TNC prepared to try to purchase the cave at auction, and received offers of assistance from BCI and the SCCi. TNC and SCCi researched land values and agreed on a joint bidding strategy for the auction.

The farm being auctioned was 474 acres divided into 28 separate parcels for bidding. Bidding for the 33-acre cave tract opened at $50,000 and climbed higher as several bidders competed. The SCCi won the bidding at $74,000, backed by a TNC contribution of $30,836 and a $10,000 commitment from Bat Conservation International. Even though we won the bidding at $74,000 we could have still lost because at the end of the auction the entire farm is offered as a whole to the highest bidder. The situation was truly nail-biting. Fortunately, no one came forward to buy the farm as a whole.

Wolf River Cave will continue to be managed by the Wolf River Management Committee of the Upper Cumberland Grotto (UCG) of the National Speleological Society in conjunction with the SCCi and the TNC.  The management policy and procedures currently in place are not expected to undergo any major changes. Currently, the Wolf River Management Committee (WRMC) members are: Kristen Bobo, Chair, with Anthony Olberding, James Greene, and Nora Dickinsas Cave Managers. Permission is required to enter the cave, which is open from May through August.

The current management plan, access procedures, policies, and contacts for the Wolf River Cave Preserve may be found on the SCCi web site preserves page. Access to the cave for 2002 ended on September 16, 2002, with the beginning of the bat hibernation season.  Wolf River Cave will continue to be managed to allow access in the spring and summer but will remain closed to visitation during the winter months to protect the hibernating bats.

The SCCi Directors are very exited about this cooperative effort to protect one of Tennessee’s most significant caves. We are counting on the help and support of the caving community in meeting the financial and stewardship responsibilities that come with ownership of this important cave. As you know, SCCi recently purchased Snail Shell Cave in Tennessee and Valhalla Cave in Alabama. Acquiring these three fantastic preserves in the same year has severely depleted our operating cash, increased our debt load to the highest level since we began purchasing caves, and significantly reduced our ability to act quickly in situations like the Wolf River Cave auction. We need your help to get back to full strength, so that we are able to take advantage of new opportunities as they arise.

In another sense, however, this is not entirely a bad thing, because it provides a yardstick for measuring our success in carrying out our mission! The SCCi aggressively pursues the acquisition of significant caves throughout the southeast, and has a well-defined mission and plan for cave protection and management. Cave acquisition is our business. Your support, both financial and through volunteer efforts, makes it possible for cavers to acquire, manage, protect, and enjoy southeastern caves.

Our main limitation in pursuing these projects is financial – we have to be sure we can pay for them. Before the Wolf River Cave auction, we had a debt load of more than $250,000, which we service through monthly mortgage payments. After the contributions from TNC and BCI for the purchase of Wolf River Cave, we have still increased this amount by more than $33,000 to a total of over $283,000. This figure covers only the mortgage amounts and does not include expenses such as surveys, title work, property maintenance, insurance, or other monthly operating expenses.

Right now we have more than a dozen more great caves either in negotiation or under consideration for acquisition. Unless we can raise more money, we can not buy more caves until we reduce or pay down our debt. Our greatest need is therefore financial, and you can best help the Conservancy acquire caves by contributing according to your means and ability. About 60% to 70% of the money that we use to make our mortgage payments comes from monthly donations by SCCi Sustaining Members. The rest is raised through the SCCi booth at caving events, or by special grants from individuals or organizations.

Please consider joining SCCi as a Sustaining Member, and helping to pay for the caves we all love and enjoy. For as little as $10 a month you can be a cave owner. Regular memberships are also available for $25 per year.

The following links provide information about our partners in the purchase of Wolf River Cave:

The Nature Conservancy, Tennessee Chapter

Bat Conservation International, Inc.