Conservation Goes Underground
Standing at the river's edge in 95-degree heat, we could feel a cool breeze emerging from the base of the bluff. The temperature continued to drop as we walked up the slope.
Under an overhanging rock ledge, we checked our equipment one last time: three sources of light, sturdy plastic helmet, much mended coveralls, rubber boots and gloves. Everything was in order.
A pigeon, startled by our presence, flew out of the entrance and over our heads. We wondered what other surprises would be waiting for us in the cave.
Switching on our headlamps we moved forward into the twilight zone. Cave crickets shifted their grip on the cave wall, and the eyes of large spiders glowed with the light from our lamps. Frogs splashed back into the stream as we passed. Icy water dripped from the ceiling, finding its way inside a collar now and then.
We slipped down the muddy bank, cold water filling our boots, and stopped to listen to the stillness of the cave.
Our lights reflected off stream ripples, making the mineral formations sparkle like precious stones. Shadows in the cave seemed to move away from us like live things as we made our way forward, stopping sometimes to admire the stalagmites and flowstone.
Cave life occasionally made itself known - an orange salamander on a mud bank, and fluffy white tufts of fungus growing on animal droppings. Small condensation covered bats clung to the ceiling, while cave crayfish fed on dead stuff in the water. Shallow pits marked where bears had spent the winter, clawed tracks showed the hunting trail of a raccoon and seeds cracked by a visiting pack rat could also be found, if you knew where to look.
But not all of the signs of life were natural. Broken formations marked with muddy handprints, scattered cans, spray-painted names, burnt wooden torches, old batteries and bottles were signs that some larger, more careless animals had visited the cave.
The natural beauty of the cave was marred by litter and thoughtless use. Responsible cavers would leave only their footprints and take only pictures, but the people who had used this cave did not seem to care.
Missouri is sometimes called "The Cave State," and the Conservation Department recognizes caves as distinct components of the state's landscape. Over 100 caves are known to punctuate Conservation Department lands, but more than 5,000 occur across the state.
Caves have unique rock formations, fragile species of wildlife and cold, clear flowing waters. But people can easily deface and destroy the stalactites and stalagmites, scatter the endangered wildlife and dump toxic chemicals into the water of caves. Because of this, the biological and geologic features of these caves need special handling to ensure their protection. The Conservation Department closes many of them, some seasonally, some year-round, to conserve their fragile beauty.
A cross section of the Ozarks today would show a network of caves like the holes in a chunk of Swiss cheese. The "cheese" is the limestone that lies under the surface of the Ozarks. Long ago while rivers cut the Ozarks from above, underground rivers were working at the landscape from below. Natural combinations of chemicals from soil, water and air formed acids that dripped onto the stone and carved tunnels throughout the region.
Animals, such as the blind cavefish and crayfish, and many cave invertebrates, are adapted to spending their entire lives in caves. Pink planaria, pink flatworms that live in only one cave in the world, are animals that never leave their cave systems.
Other animals spend only part of their lives in caves or cavelike environments. An unlikely group, including raccoons, bullfrogs and pigeons, finds shelter in caves but does not depend on them for food. And sometimes other animals arrive in caves by accident, such as fish or turtles that are washed in by floods.
Thirty-one endangered bat caves and four Ozark cavefish caves are gated or fenced to protect them. Signs are posted at other caves, asking visitors not to enter them. Vandals sometimes break locks or destroy gates and fences and enter anyway. We hope that as people learn more about caves this needless vandalism will stop.
Gray bats are an example of the harm that can be done by interlopers. During the summer months, gray bats raise their young in caves. If these bats are disturbed, they will take flight, and their young may fall to the cave floor, where they will die.
Indiana bats are also vulnerable. Their population in Missouri has decreased by 40 percent in the past 10 years. The decline seems to have been caused by pesticide use, summer habitat loss and the loss of the cold, predator-free caves the bats need for hibernation.
Bats put on weight during the summer months to sustain them during hibernation. Intruders may awaken hibernating Indiana bats. Half-an-hour awake costs the bat a month's worth of the precious fat it needs to survive the winter. If the body fat is consumed before insects are plentiful in the spring, the bats run out of energy and die.
Toxins from the surface are also a threat to the creatures that live in caves. An oil spill or gasoline or ammonia from a broken pipe line can easily find its way into the underground. Cave systems that have had pure flowing water over millions of years can be irreversibly damaged by heedless dumping of toxic wastes or runoff from livestock operations and sewers.
One way toxins enter caves is through sinkholes. A sinkhole is created when the roof of a cave collapses. Substances entering a cave via a sinkhole could contaminate your well or your neighbor's, or the city water supply. And though the Clean Water Act has made it illegal to use a sinkhole as a dump, people persist, often contaminating the local groundwater as a result.
Conservation Department scientists are finding more caves on lands controlled by the agency. A Conservation Department policy manages caves primarily for protection of cave wildlife and habitats. The presence of cultural, geological and biological features, endangered species, cave communities and sensitive cave ecosystems are taken into consideration. Hazardous conditions for humans are also considered.
The cave policy acts as a springboard for the Conservation Department's upcoming recreational caving program. We know that caving is popular and we would like to direct visitors to good "recreational" caves.
The Conservation Department is not the only organization in the state with an interest in cave conservation. Grottos, groups of people who enter caves to explore, map and enjoy them, are especially active in cave protection. Some have cave clean up days when they repair broken formations, pick up litter and scrub paint off cave walls. The grottos are a good source for information about caves and caving. By joining a local grotto you can have a safe and responsible introduction to caving.
The non-profit Cave Research Foundation of Kentucky encourages cave conservation and education and conducts research. The Missouri Caves and Karst Conservancy (MCKC) is increasing ties between the people who are interested in caves. MCKC both owns and manages caves, protecting their geological and recreational aspects.
In the future, look for caving programs sponsored by the Conservation Department. And when you visit a cave, recognize it as the unique habitat that it is and take care to protect it, leaving only footprints as a sign of your visit