A small but well-informed group of citizens gathered at the Lovell Community Center last Wednesday, Oct. 25, for a public meeting regarding cave and karst protection and management in the Big Horn Basin.
Three citizens plus a reporter attended the meeting hosted by the Bureau of Land Management Cody Field Office, but all three of the citizens were experienced cavers and active in spelunking issues. Attending were Jim Thomas of Lovell, Juan Laden of Lander and Marynell Oechsner of Powell.
The purpose of the meeting was to help the BLM develop a cave and karst management plan that balances recreational use and scientific research along with protection, addressing “site specific needs” that arise in a multiple use setting, BLM Cody Field Manager Delissa Minnick said.
“We want to give you our initial thoughts on a cave and karst plan,” Minnick said. “This is our first attempt at a formal process to begin management springing from the 2015 resource management plan and drill down to specific resources. We want to hear back from the public about recreation, management and protection.”
Leading the effort are range and cave specialist Bryan McKenzie and wildlife biologist Destin Harrell, who led the discussion Wednesday.
“There are some magnificent caves in our planning area in the Lovell area, “ Harrell said, noting caves on Little Mountain, Sheep Mountain, Little Sheep Mountain and other areas, as well as Spirit Cave and others on the west side of the basin.
Following the issuance of the RMP, Harrell said, the Cody Field Office staff held four internal meetings to gather information and present management ideas.
He said there are 32 caves known to exist in the management area as part of a very complex system, and eight of them are gated and locked, with three available to the public via a permit system. Several of the caves are used by bats, and three have bats listed as sensitive species by the BLM.
“We want to manage recreational use and human use, and we have a lot of sensitive resources,” Harrell said.
Caves are rich in biological resources, many with unique resources that have developed over time due to the isolation of a given cave “like islands in an ocean,” Harrell said, such as insects that have adapted to a cave environment and bats that use the cave habitat both inside and outside the cave, feeding on insects and providing nutrients through their guano that leads to unique microbial and insect life.
Harrell played a video about the spread of white nose syndrome, which has devastated the bat population on the east coast and has spread as far west as Oklahoma. He said the fungal disease attacks the bats during their most vulnerable time – hibernation – and growing on the bats like mold on cheese in a refrigerator and causing severe damage to their bodies. The colonial nature of bats allows the disease to spread rapidly.
White nose syndrome can “hitch a ride” on caving equipment, so part of the management plan involves decontamination protocol, Harrell said. He added that the BLM has done monitoring of cave conditions in the region, and in terms of temperature and humidity Wyoming caves have similar conditions to caves in the east and that bats here would be susceptible to the disease. He said he wants to get the word out, noting that spelunkers “are really good at communicating and teaching each other.”
Harrell said with Horse Thief Cave having an environment that would allow disease to attack the bats, it might make sense to close Horse Thief to caving just during the winter hibernation season, but he said he’d like to hear from cavers about that idea.
The cave and karst plan would also address other resources such as paleo resources of the type found in Natural Trap Cave, Harrell said, noting that a relatively new law enacted in 2009 helps management agencies take resources into account and “do what’s right.”
“Those are non-renewable resources, a record in time in the layers,” he said. “If they are disturbed inappropriately, we’ll never get them back.”
Archaeological resources such as human remains and pottery are also non-renewable resources, Harrell said.
One of the potential projects in the plan is graffiti removal, he said, calling graffiti “the recent stuff.” The key, he said, is determining “what’s graffiti and what’s historic,” noting that different style of script can determine the age of writing in a cave. He said he would like to incorporate a site and cave stewardship program, adding that the State Historic Preservation Office can host training sessions for volunteers to adopt and monitor an area.
Some of the outreach the BLM does and would like to continue is education and recreation management. He said there are caves with a strong fire smell because recreationists have built so many fires in them over the years. He also said the BLM has an inflatable cave that can be used for education.
“It’s actually a pretty good fit and a good way to introduce people to caves and build respect for them,” he said.
As Harrell and other staffers reached out to the trio of citizen attendees, Jim Thomas noted that he is the coordinator for search and rescue planning for area caves under the auspices of the Big Horn County Sheriff’s Dept., and Harrell said he would like to work with Thomas to develop a safety plan for area caves.
Harrell and Minnick said they would like to work with local grotto organizations and keep in contact with them.
Thomas noted that he and Don Minchow first opened Titan Cave on Little Mountain with their sons about 30 years ago and that has led cave rescue training sessions at Horse Thief cave. He said he would like to see Titan Cave open to the public again, noting that it has been gated and locked for years. Harrell said he would like to find an avenue to do so and would like to have Thomas lead BLM officials through the cave (or process) toward opening it back up for public use.
Messick said the BLM would like to discover “how we can go about learning about the cave and developing a plan for opening it again,” adding, “I really want to work with the experts and develop that relationship…Titan Cave is one area we really need feedback on.”
Asked if the plan would be general or cave specific, Harrell said the plan would have general guidelines but would also address specific caves. Oechsner said she would like the BLM to identify which caves will be open for public recreation and which would be set aside for scientific study.
Harrell said the BLM wants to get a plan in place within a year but the plan would be adaptive, noting, “Each cave has unique values and will be addressed individually. All caves have different important values. We need to assess each one and come up with a different strategy (for each).”
With so few in attendance there was no need to go into breakout sessions, but Laden showed the officials on his laptop how certain cave systems have been mapped.
Additional information about the cave and karst management plan is available at http://bit.ly/cave_plan.
Written comments may be emailed to firstname.lastname@example.org (please use “Cave Plan” in the subject line) or submitted to the Cody Field Office, 1002 Blackburn Street, Cody, WY 82414, by Nov. 30, 2017.
For more information, contact Destin Harrell or Bryan McKenzie at 307-578-5900.
By David Peck