By Sara McLaughlin
I recently became aware that Bluegrass Underground has purchased a new cave and will be moving from McMinnville to Monteagle. While I recognize that seeing live music in a subterranean setting is something of a novelty, people need to be aware of the consequences and drawbacks of supporting ventures like this. The new cave that Bluegrass Underground recently purchased has documented records of Tennessee Cave Salamander. Tennessee Cave Salamanders are listed as T(S2) in Tennessee. This means that they are a state-listed species that is in peril (T = Threatened, S2 = Very rare and imperiled within the state). According to Natureserve, there are only about 2 dozen known occurrences from a small area of karst topography in northern AL, northwest GA, and TN (see link below for map). As you may have guessed, the major threat to this species is habitat destruction. As stated in the linked article below, the room that will undergo construction to house the new music venue, “actually adjoins a number of connected cave systems.” Construction will change the very essence of this cave and its’ adjoining system. Cave attributes subject to change include moisture levels, water flow, water quality, airflow, floral growth, and acoustics, not to mention the associated noise pollution to residents of this cave; disturbing the cave environment also directly impacts hydrology and can affect the quality of public water sources. The interconnectedness of the subterranean aquatic environment is complex and not well understood.
In addition to Tennessee Cave Salamanders, a plethora of other state and federally listed species are known from Grundy County, Tennessee, including but not limited to, Allegheny woodrat, gray bat, Rafinesque’s big-eared bat, southern cavefish, and Yeatman’s groundwater copepod. All of these species make caves their home during a portion or the entirety of their lives. As well, U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service advise organizations to consider the federally listed Indiana bat and northern long-eared bat for planning and conservation purposes in Grundy County. At this point, many people have likely heard of white-nose syndrome (WNS). WNS is a disease of bats caused by an exotic, invasive, cold-loving fungus, Pseudogymnoascus destructans, which is responsible for the death of some 6 million bats since being discovered in New York in 2006. This fungal infection flourishes in the cold climate of caves, infecting the tissue of hibernating bats, disturbing their torpor, depleting their fat stores, causing dehydration, emaciation, and even eats holes in their delicate wing tissue. WNS has spread across the United States at an alarming rate, killing an approximate 90% of some bat species. While this fungus is thought to be spread by the bats themselves, of greater concern is its spread by humans entering caves, becoming contaminated, and tracking the spores to new locations. The first case of WNS from the western U.S. was reported in central Washington in 2016, approximately 1,300 miles from its former western-most documented case in Nebraska. This was most certainly spread by humans.
Federally listed species, such as gray and Indiana bats, are afforded protection on state and federal lands, and caves are closed on much of these respective lands in order to protect sensitive cave flora and fauna. Federally listed species are also protected on private lands, but only if appropriate agencies are aware of their presence and property owners are responsible humans, which is not often the case. You may have heard the phrase, “shoot, shovel, and shut up,” which refers to a private land owners’ method of dealing with unwanted threatened or endangered (T&E) species on their property. This method is employed by land owners to prevent federal agencies from taking measures meant to protect a listed species. Protective measures may dictate what owners are permitted to do with their property. This has been a problem for years, especially with regard to bald eagles and red-cockaded woodpeckers. State-listed species like the Tennessee cave salamander, however, are not afforded the same protections as federally listed species. Actions by private landowners largely go unregulated, whether it’s pulling river rocks from streams on private property to sell out front of Green Acres Flea Market off of Alcoa Highway, or turning a cave with state-listed species into a music venue.
The recently purchased cave was likely sold by a private landowner, who has the legal ability to do what (s)he wishes with their property, including selling it to an entrepreneur who plans to turn it into a music venue. There was a time in the earlier years of conservation in the southeast when Nickajack Cave was being sold for a similar purpose and the Tennessee Valley Authority (TVA) was supposed to permit this action. Nickajack Cave is one of the most biologically important caves in Tennessee! Fortunately, due to a concerted effort by a TVA biologist and a bat conservationist, Merlin Tuttle, this asinine project never came to fruition and today Tennessee Wildlife Resources Agency manages Nickajack Cave as a wildlife refuge. Caves have a unique intrinsic and scientific value which is endangered by carelessness and various forms of vandalism. When these resources are modified or destroyed they are forever changed. The responsibility for protecting caves must be formed by those who study and enjoy them, and by the supportive voices of concerned citizens. The take home message here is that in the face of the current anti-environment political climate, the time for constructing a honkytonk inside of a cave should be long behind us! It is ethically and environmentally irresponsible to turn sensitive cave resources into places of entertainment for monetary gain. “Take nothing but pictures, leave nothing but footprints, waste nothing but time.”
Here is the article referenced in this letter:
This is a link to Natureserve’s Tennessee cave salamander species account, including range maps:
This is a link to TWRA’s bat working group page with information of listed bats, where they are found, and white-nose syndrome: