When Jim Kennedy first rappelled down into Kentucky’s Saltpeter Pit three years ago, he landed on “one of the biggest mounds of nastiness that I have ever sunk foot in, and I’ve waded through waist-deep pools of bat guano.” BCI’s veteran Cave Specialist and his colleagues were standing atop a rotting mountain of trash dumped over decades by Pulaski County residents. Then, after scrambling over and around “Mount Trashmore” and venturing into the cave itself, they made a remarkable discovery: an estimated 600 Rafinesque’s big-eared bats were hibernating in a passageway that branched out from the pit.
That’s an exceptionally large and important population of this rare species. Kennedy was astonished that the bats were using the cave despite the 30-foot-high trash pile rising from the bottom of the 50-foot-deep sinkhole. The debris not only introduced severe pollutants into the cave ecosystem, but also restricted flight space and probably altered airflow. And he also found an expanse of distinctive stains on the cave ceiling that suggested endangered Indiana myotis had previously used the small cave, although they apparently abandoned it long ago.
To protect the big-eared bats and perhaps entice the Indiana myotis to return, the trash had to go. So BCI and the American Cave Conservation Association joined forces to tackle the job. With eager volunteers, a few paid contractors and a lot of ingenuity, they hoped the job could be mostly completed during the summer of 2006.
So volunteer cavers descended on Mount Trashmore, filling 1,000-pound bags of trash. They built scaffolding and spanned the hole with a steel beam, attached a pulley and used Jeep-power to haul the bulging bags of trash to the surface. The trash was then taken to a dumpster, where recyclable materials were sorted out.
An impressive 20 tons or so of trash was removed during that first week and a half of work, but the malodorous mountain was barely dented.
Careful planning and additional funding brought more success during the summer of 2007, with a larger, paid crew reinforcing the volunteers. In four weeks of hard labor, the team removed about 130 tons of trash. Biologists also installed “dataloggers” to monitor temperature and humidity inside the cave to evaluate its suitability for the bats and to gauge the effects of trash removal.
In August 2008, cavers and paid workers finally finished the grueling cleanup and took down the scaffolding. In all, roughly 200 tons of trash and muck was dug up, bagged and hauled out of Saltpeter Pit, including more than 520 automobile tires, a boat, eight refrigerators, a riding lawnmower and countless bits and pieces of cars and trucks.
In this extraordinary collaboration, more than 70 people worked in the cleanup, which was supported by a variety of grants (including one from Beneficia Foundation) and in-kind contributions. The project is valued at more than $170,000, including about $50,000 in donated labor, equipment and landfill fees. But the mammoth, backbreaking project is finally complete: Mount Trashmore is gone, and cavers plans to monitor the cave to prevent future dumping.
In January 2008, Kennedy returned to Saltpeter Pit. He counted 585 Rafinesque’s big-eared bats, but no Indiana myotis. Only time will tell if the endangered species ever returns to the cave. But if so, Saltpeter Pit will be far more welcoming that it was in the past.
Saltpeter Pit was initially explored as part of a BCI program, supported by the Offield Family Foundation, to survey more than 100 Kentucky caves that were historically mined for bat guano, from which saltpeter was extracted to produce gunpowder. Indiana myotis were frequently a source of that guano.
BCI Members can read the whole story of the attack on Mount Trashmore in the Winter 2008 issue of BATS magazine.