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I’ve had the incredible opportunity to correspond with Jennifer Redell, Cave & Mine Specialist for the Wisconsin Department of Natural Resources, about caving activities in the Upper Midwest and abroad.  As caves continue to see more and more activity, her expertise has proven useful in providing me with additional resources and advice to encourage responsible caving activities.

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When caving in the Upper Midwest, what are some things that recreational cavers should take into account?

1. White Nose Syndrome (WNS)

WNS is responsible for significant bat mortality in eastern North America, and threatens bat populations across the continent. Currently, the US Fish and Wildlife Service (USFWS) strongly recommends compliance with all cave closures (whether complete or seasonal closures), advisories, and regulations in all Federal, State, Tribal, and private lands. Where such closures are not required or recommended, protocols have been developed that outline the best-known procedures to help reduce the transmission of the fungus that causes WNS to important bat habitat and populations. Local and national cave groups have also posted information and cave advisories on their websites.

In Wisconsin, WNS rules carry the weight of law:

  • Landowners of caves and mines with bats are responsible for not allowing the knowing transfer or introduction of the prohibited WNS fungus to their property. Many private cave and mine landowners statewide have partnered with the Department in WNS prevention. Many privately-owned caves and mines are currently closed to caving activities at request from the landowner in an effort to prevent any risk of human-assisted transfer of the WNS fungus. Landowner permission should always be sought prior to each caving trip.
  • Cavers may not use gear that has been used in a cave/mine outside of Wisconsin in a cave/mine within Wisconsin. Caving gear should be dedicated for use in Wisconsin only and should be stored separately from gear dedicated to out-of-state caving activities.
  • Caving equipment, clothing, and gear must be decontaminated following Department-approved protocols between cave/mine visits in Wisconsin. The Department approved decontamination protocols may be found by visiting http://dnr.wi.gov/topic/WildlifeHabitat/bats.html. If gear cannot be decontaminated, either for safety reasons or fear that equipment may be damaged, it should not enter subsequent caves but rather be designated for use in that one specific cave.
  • When storing or transporting dirty caving gear, ensure steps are taken to avoid contaminating clean items. For example, while in storage or in a vehicle, gear should remain in a sealed container; after caving, dirty gear should be removed outside of the vehicle and placed in a sealed container for transport to an area where it can be decontaminated.
  • All commercial (tour) cave and mine sites in Wisconsin have developed WNS prevention plans in cooperation with the Department and do not allow visitors to wear clothing or gear on tours that has been in other caves or mines, even if it has been washed. These sites request that such items be left at home or in a vehicle during the visit and can also provide decontamination sprays for shoes if needed.

While decontamination procedures are likely to add extra time and money and decrease the overall life expectancy of equipment, the gravity of the situation necessitates that anyone who visits caves must do everything possible to avoid potentially contributing to the further spread of the disease.

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 2. Safety and Skill.

Safety comes first. Every cave is unique and will have a unique set of challenges, required skills, and equipment. Many caves in the Midwest are relatively small, require no special vertical equipment, and are not prone to flooding. However, there are notable exceptions in Wisconsin, Iowa, and Minnesota. Many caves are only suitable for experienced cavers. Risks include getting stuck or pinned, falling or tripping, unpredictable flooding, exhaustion, and hypothermia, among others. Nationwide, every year inexperienced or unprepared cavers are rescued due to incidents that that could have been easily avoided.

No drugs or alcohol. Being under the influence leads to impaired judgment that can be particularly dangerous underground where even minor accidents can lead to life-threatening situations.

Never go caving alone. Solo caving is dangerous. If you were [to get] hurt, there would be no one to go for help. A minimum of three people is wise, and if a group has four and someone gets hurt one person can remain with the injured party while two go for help.

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Be aware of the weather. All caves were formed by water, and some are subject to flash flooding. Drowning is the leading cause of caving fatalities. If you don’t know the flood history of the cave, then stay out when it is, has been, or is going to be raining.

Always tell someone where you are going and when you expect to be back. This increases your chances to be found in a timely manner if rescuers need to be called. Be reasonable about your return time and allow a couple of extra hours in case the trip lasts longer than you expected. Tell your friend who they should call if you are not back in time.

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Always carry three sources of light per person. Caves are dark. Light failure means it would be nearly impossible to navigate out the cave. Should this happen to you, stay put. Do not try to feel your way out of the cave because you could easily fall and get hurt. Wait for someone to come get you.

Dress appropriately: always wear a helmet. Midwest caves are cold and often wet. Wear sturdy footwear with tread. Helmets should include a chin strap or harness. The helmet serves as a place to mount your light and provides limited protection against falling rocks.

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Know your limits and the limiting factors of the cave. Caving is tiring: know your limits [and] rest frequently. If you are uncomfortable with a passage, speak up! People with chronic medical conditions should take this into consideration before entering a cave. Avoid jumping: cave floors are seldom level, may be unstable, and even a short jump can result in an injury.

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Caving is a team activity. The slowest caver sets the pace. Go only as fast as you can be followed, and check on the caver behind you. Watch for fatigue in others and communicate if you are uncomfortable with a passage or climb.

Do not attempt vertical caving without proper training. Never attempt to climb a rope hand over hand. You need the proper equipment and instruction.

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3. Cave Conservation

Cave conservation ethics, particularly in light of the fact that the Midwest is on the leading edge of the WNS spread, are more important now than ever. Bats in Wisconsin and the Midwest need every chance they can get to live healthy, normal, undisturbed lives. This means taking personal responsibility for adhering to dedicated gear laws, policies, and protocols, and being personally responsible for appropriately decontaminating caving clothing and gear, even if it means an individual has to sit out a caving trip.

All caves may be used by bats at certain times of the year, and most people never observe bats using caves. This means that every cave or cave-like space should be considered important bat habitat and treated as such. To eliminate the possibility of harming hibernating bats by waking them up, Midwest caves and other cave-like spaces (mines, tunnels, crevices, cellars) should not be entered from October 1 through May 15 of each year. Body temperature, lights, and even quiet noises disturb bats. Bats aroused from hibernation use 30-60 days worth of critical fat reserves necessary to sustain their lives when their insect food is not available. There is no published information to support the belief (by some) that bats get “used to” human disturbance during hibernation. The effects of repeated disturbance can lead to death of individuals or termination of pregnancy. Additionally, bats use caves and cave entrances at night from August 15 through October 15 for fall swarming (mating) activities. This means that caving should take place during daylight during this time period, and cave entrance areas should be avoided after sunset so bats remain undisturbed.

Cave conservation is not just about bats. Responsible cavers respect the entire cave system. This means leaving any cave life alone and undisturbed, moving slowly and carefully in areas where cave life may exist (much of it unobserved by cavers—invertebrates under stones and in drip pools). Absence of evidence is not evidence of absence. People should never assume that unobserved impacts mean no impact. Cumulative impacts are often the kinds that devastate the aesthetics of pristine cave and animal populations. Speleothems (cave formations like stalactites) form very slowly and damage can happen quickly and is often irreversible. Altering natural cave spaces in any way, or leaving anything behind, only encourages this repeat behavior and is a form of vandalism.

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Do not vandalize the cave. Leave the cave as you found it. Do not touch cave formations (the oil from your skin can block the formation of calcite cave formations). Do not break or remove any formations even if they have previously been broken (it can encourage others to break them). Do not leave graffiti. Take out anything you take into the cave. Sharing the location of a cave can lead to increased vandalism.

Do not disturb cave life. Many types of cave critters are on Federal and State endangered species lists. Bats will not bother you unless you bother them first. They will not get tangled in your hair although they can occasionally carry rabies.

Always cave softly. Follow the caver’s motto: Take nothing but pictures, leave nothing but footprints, kill nothing but time.

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 4. Access

Respect the wishes of the cave owner. All caves are owned or managed by someone (be it a private citizen or unit of government) and permission should be sought before every caving trip. Most Wisconsin cave owners do not allow caving activities (or allow them only during summer months). Cavers who trespass or who are disrespectful of landowner wishes ruin caving for everyone else. In Wisconsin, dedicated gear and WNS decontamination is the law and cave owners are legally responsible for ensuring that humans (guests and visitors) do not transfer WNS to their cave or mine. All cave landowners in Wisconsin have been informed of WNS rules and decontamination requirements for cavers.

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Do not share or promote cave location information. Most caves are privately owned and many landowners wish to have their privacy respected. Caves and the animals that reside there may be easily harmed by even low-impact human activities (like recreational caving). Vandalism and graffiti mars the aesthetic beauty of a site. The more people that know about the location of a site, the more it is visited and impacted.

For those of you that haven’t been following the series or may have missed some articles, feel free to check out some of the links below to get caught up on other interesting Tripleblaze articles regarding caving:

Interview: Understanding Cave Closures and White-Nose Syndrome

News: Bat White-Nose Syndrome Pushing West into Wisconsin

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