Going To The Bats

By Mary Lynne Richards

It’s happening on land a few blocks away from Mark Twain’s boyhood home.

You’ll see senior citizens strolling, toddlers on tricycles, women walking and talking, teenagers zipping by on scooters, runners keeping step with each other. Weather and time of day don’t seem to matter. Sodalis Nature Preserve in Hannibal, Mo., is filled with residents and tourists who come to visit Mark Twain’s home and museum, the Mark Twain Cave, and other historic features in this Mississippi River town of 18,000 people.

But two years ago, this 180-acre bluff high above the river was filled with four-wheelers racing through the trails, abandoned mining buildings covered with graffiti, and caves packed with debris.

The bats that came in and out of the caves were somewhat of an afterthought.

The openings to the former limestone mines, where the bats hibernate in the winter, have now been gated off to protect the bats from human disturbance. It was the largest bat-gate undertaking of its kind.

More Than Expected
It was about three years ago when Kirsten Alvey-Mudd, who grew up in Hannibal, was exploring. She remembered the mine passages and entrances located on the bluffs above the city and had been fascinated with the bats within them as a child. As an adult and director of Missouri Bat Census, she returned and rediscovered the mine and its bats.

After consulting experts from Missouri Department of Conservation and United States Fish and Wildlife Service, the discovery changed what is now known about the endangered Indiana bats. Prior to this discovery, the total winter population of bats in Missouri was estimated to be about 13,000. Also, it was presumed that all Indiana bats hibernating in Missouri were located south of the Missouri River. After about 17 miles of passages were mapped by Cave Research Foundation, the number in the hibernation habitat reached at least 168,000 federally endangered Indiana bats, which represents one-third of all of the Indiana bats known to exist. No other Indiana bat hibernaculum of this size occurs anywhere else in the world. Five other bat species are known to use the property, including the federally endangered gray bat and federally threatened northern long-eared bat.

Great Timing
But the Indiana bat, whose scientific name “myotis sodalis” is the reason for the preserve’s name, has been greatly affected by white-nose syndrome. Permanent protection of important hibernacula is essential to the conservation and protection of affected species. So conservation officials had been hard at work protecting these bats, making the discovery of the hibernaculum great timing.

Also, around the time of the discovery, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service was negotiating a unique and precedent-setting mitigation package for the Canadian-based Enbridge Energy’s Flanagan South Pipeline Project. The wildlife service established measures for avoiding and minimizing impacts to bat and migratory bird habitat from the 600-mile pipeline. However, for the unavoidable habitat destruction, the service worked with Enbridge to establish a $22-million habitat compensation fund. The wildlife service partnered with national mitigation expert The Conservation Fund, which specializes in real-estate transactions to implement a land-protection and restoration program to benefit migratory birds and Indiana bats.

The wildlife service made The Conservation Fund aware that protection of the former Lime Kiln Mine was the highest priority project because of its significance to Indiana bats. The Conservation Fund approached the current owner and signed a purchase contract on the main mine facility and 185 acres surrounding it after nearly a year of negotiation. The Conservation Fund had 34 individual bat-friendly gates built across all the mine entrances, some of which were large enough to drive two semi-trucks in and out side-by-side. Prior to gating, the entrances were open to trespassers on ATVs and vehicles who had unfettered access to the mine, and by their own admission, trespassers built fires in the mine and used the bats as target practice.

Protecting The Preserve
The Hannibal Parks & Recreation Department (HPR) has the largest role in developing the future of the nature preserve. Besides providing a trailhead and passive recreation amenities, such as park benches and trash cans, HPR has installed outdoor fitness equipment near the trailhead, along with a bulletin board that explains the history of Sodalis and the importance of bats.

The parks department sponsored Bat Appreciation Day activities, giving the public plenty of information about bats. Hannibal High School’s life science class has conducted experiments at Sodalis and helped eradicate honeysuckle. The students also chose the name of the largest trail, calling it Pirate Ridge after the school mascot.

Already there have been several 5K Fun Runs through the nature preserve. Another half-mile of paved trail is due for construction starting in summer 2017. Connecting a pedestrian trail to Mark Twain’s boyhood home and the thriving downtown is the next step.

A conservation easement ensures that the property remains a nature preserve in perpetuity.

And as stark a contrast as the property is to what it was two years ago, the nature preserve will surely change for the better in the next few years.

Mary Lynne Richards is Marketing Director/Recreation Supervisor for the Hannibal Parks & Recreation. Reach her at MLRichards@hannibal-mo.gov.