Caving and disturbed hibernators

Yesterday was the first time I ever went caving. It was a blast and I got some great iNat observations but I feel sick to my stomach knowing I was part of a group that disturbed hibernating bats. This cave is partially fully commercially developed and partially accessible through their guided wild cave tours.

Halfway through the crawl, we got to what the guide called the “critter room,” so named because it’s where bats hibernate. I only saw one bat (a tricolored bat) but the guide said his boss had photographed gray bats and little brown bats in this room. That’s three federally threatened species in one room in one cave, and here I was traipsing around during hibernation! When I expressed concern, the guide (incorrectly) reassured me that they don’t hibernate and that we weren’t bothering them because “they move around the cave all the time.” He had no clue that they’re waking up before winter and likely starving.

I’m not upset with this tour guide because he obviously didn’t know better, but I’m wondering what to do with this information. I don’t know if the USFWS would close a commercially developed cave and don’t know that it would be necessary. And I’m also wondering if there are more responsible ways that I can explore “wild” caves. Disturbing wildlife is never my intent so I don’t know if caving just needs to be a hobby that’s off the table for me.

Does anyone have any thoughts or experiences?

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That is incredibly disturbing, you’re right.

I would definitely contact USFWS. Maybe they won’t do anything, but like, worst case scenario nothing happens, right? I would also put together some info about these species (with a lot of sources so they can’t go “well some rando told me…”) and give it to the people operating the tours.

Thank you for caring about wildlife.

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Regarding caving, make sure you follow the White Nose Syndrome decontamination protocols recommended for your area. To avoid disturbing hibernating bats, or in the summer to avoid disturbing maternity colonies, keep the potential presence of bats foremost on your mind when you enter a cave. Keep noise to a minimum as you go forward and keep your eyes as far ahead as possible. A strong, hand-held flashlight helps. If you see bats, you can back out of the cave and return at a different season. You can look for bats on the way into a cave, and if none seen, you can then be a little more relaxed about noise on the way out.

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Oh my! Poor things! I agree with

Also notify the state game warden. They can probably do something about it sooner than the US Feds.

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What state was this in?

This was in Tennessee. I plan on talking to one of our state game wardens about it Tuesday. (I’ll be meeting with them for an unrelated reason.)

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Wow. Hope they do something about it soon.

I would caution to not jump to too many conclusions… by all means follow up on this, but try not to pre-judge without all the facts. “Do something about it” sounds like you have already found them guilty of something! They may have undertaken studies prior to setting up the operation that established there would be a minimal impact on the bats, although the current re-assessment on the tricolor bats would suggest that it could well be wise to re-evaluate in context of the new threats.

I always try to imagine a worst case scenario AND best case scenario, the two extremes will usually temper my response appropriately. Just imagine that this is a small cave system, detached from a much larger one, and that by “allowing” and focusing human interest into that one cave system, the other is protected from interference by humans.

I think the iNat philosophy of “assume good intentions” is a universal one… by all means follow it up to make sure that the factors that you have considered are also considered by the operation, but starting from a position of “Shut it down” is only going to guarantee a lack of cooperation and openness on the part of the operation.

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I’m certainly not trying to have them shut down. Caving there was a wonderful experience and as far as I can tell, they’re trying to be good stewards. They make a very big deal about not bringing anything biological into the cave, no flash photos of the wildlife (though they allow head lamps on them), using low-heat LEDs to keep cave temps low, and so on. I don’t think disturbing hibernators was their intent but they seem to just not know that it’s a lethal effect.

This cave isn’t attached to a larger cave system; however, we live in an area with a ton of caves and there’s definitely some good that comes from encouraging people to care about cave ecology.

I do plan on going back (when it’s not hibernation season). I just don’t feel good about the fact that people are disturbing hibernating bats.

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