October 31, 2016|By Clint Miller

In April 2016, more than 200 people showed up at the first Hannibal Bat Festival to attend the evening out-flight of bats at the main mine entrance in Sodalis Nature Preserve. Families with kids, grandparents, neighbors, and business leaders all hiked in, along with biologists and bat enthusiasts armed with their infrared cameras and bat sonar detectors. Everyone waited in anticipation as the sun went down. When the first tiny bat exited the mine he did multiple acrobatic flips just over our heads, and the crowd roared with delight! I truly savored this incredibly satisfying moment, made possible after 18 months of hard work in the creation of the Sodalis Nature Preserve.

CM IMG 6065There was a great turnout for the first Hannibal Bat Festival in April 2016. Photo by Clint Miller.

Flash back to a bleak day in January 2015, when I was feeling far less than delighted. I had just successfully negotiated the purchase of a former underground limestone mine in Hannibal, Missouri that was recently discovered to hold the world’s largest colony of endangered Indiana bats. I should have been thrilled! But I despaired, because I could not find a partner willing to take on the task of owning and managing the 185 acres of mineshafts and surrounding forest. Our usual conservation partners all agreed on the importance of the site but rejected the idea of ownership as too complicated, expensive, and risky.

With a feeling of desperation I grabbed my site maps and headed into Hannibal City Hall to present a vision of a project that would not only protect an endangered species but provide recreational opportunities within walking distance of downtown Hannibal. Parks Director Andy Dorian and City Manager Jeff LaGarce were polite and interested. The property fit well with their vision of parks and trail connectors for the City, but, as Andy said, “We love the idea of a park, but the responsibility of taking care of the bats makes us nervous.”

And there are a lot of bats to take care of! The mine passages provide habitat for at least 168,000 federally endangered Indiana bats (their scientific name is Myotis sodalis, hence the preserve name), which represents one-third of all the Indiana bats known to exist. Eight other bat species are also known to use the property, including the federally endangered gray bat and federally threatened northern long-eared bat.

CM Indiana bats resting inside the mine passages. Photo by Steve Orr.

So I took them out to see the former Lime Kiln Mine and surrounding bluffland, which lies on the southern edge of downtown Hannibal. Privately owned by a local family for more than 40 years and abandoned in the 1960s, the mine and surrounding property had become a playground for illegal trespassing. Vehicles and hikers wandered in and out of the mines at all times of year—hazardous activity for people and bats alike. This first visit to the property was an eye-opener for City staff. It was hard to get past the 2.5 acres of dilapidated mine buildings, trash, ATV trails, and enormous entrances to the mines (some of which you could drive semi-trucks into side by side!). They were able to look past all the barriers and see my vision of a future park that would provide recreational access and protect an endangered species.

Before the City was willing to take ownership of the property we needed to secure the mine entrances to keep people out but allow the bats free passage in and out. We needed to clean up the worst of the trash and remove the dangerous and decaying buildings. And, we needed to put in place agreements between the City and the United States Fish and Wildlife Service (USFWS) articulating how the property would be managed.

CM HannibalCaves Missouri SteveOrr-42Graffiti lined the mine passages prior to our clean-up project. Photo by Steve Orr.

To accomplish this, The Conservation Fund undertook what amounted to a major construction project. We hired world-class bat gate designer, Jerry Fant of Karst Solutions, to build bat-friendly gates across all 34 mine entrances—a six month undertaking that required 240 tons of steel, much of it carried and placed by hand. We hired Environmental Works, Inc. to remove 2.5 acres of concrete buildings and tons of garbage and former mine debris as part of an extensive environmental cleanup. Habitat Architects then restored the disturbed land with a mix of local tree species that will provide additional habitat for bats and migratory birds.

CM Hannibal ClintMissouri SteveOrr043 CM Hannibal Missouri After Shot Steve Orr 4Mine entrances before (left) and after (right) the gates were installed. Photos by Steve Orr.

Cooperation between City staff (particularly Andy Dorian) and the USFWS in Missouri (especially Amy Salveter, the Ecological Service Field Supervisor) created an atmosphere of trust that resulted in a unique cooperative agreement for management of the property. Through the incredible efforts of City staff, contractors, agencies, and with cooperation of the landowners, Sodalis Nature Preserve now provides the citizens of Hannibal with the second largest park in the city, 6 miles of off-road non-motorized recreational trails, and a paved hike/bike trail extension of the Bear Creek trail connected to downtown. The new nature preserve is serving as a hands-on laboratory for Hannibal students of all ages to observe and research bats and nature. In cooperation with the City, the USFWS will coordinate monitoring, management, and research of bat populations in the mine and on surrounding property.

CM IMG 6058Residents and visitors can enjoy walking and biking on a paved trail through the preserve with direct access to downtown Hannibal. Photo by Clint Miller.

The conservation value of this property cannot be overstated. It had to be preserved, but the cost would have crippled the budget of a small city like Hannibal. The Conservation Fund’s knowledge of mitigation funds led to a solution that saved the City of Hannibal millions of dollars and created the potential for additional economic benefits through nature-based activities and recreation on the new preserve.

The USFWS had recently negotiated a unique and precedent-setting mitigation package for the Canadian-based Enbridge Energy’s Flanagan South Pipeline Project, which established measures for avoiding and minimizing impacts to bat and migratory bird habitat from the 600-mile pipeline. However, for the unavoidable habitat destruction, they worked with Enbridge to establish a $22 million habitat compensation fund. USFWS partnered with The Conservation Fund to implement a land protection and restoration program to benefit migratory birds and Indiana bats. The Sodalis Nature Preserve emerged as the top priority, and $2.5 million of the Enbridge mitigation fund was spent to protect the most significant Indiana bat site in the world.

To ensure the property will forever remain a nature preserve protecting critical bat habitat and available only to non-motorized low impact recreational use, a conservation easement held by Iowa Natural Heritage Foundation was placed on the property. The 40-year-old Accredited Foundation will enforce the terms of the conservation easement in perpetuity and maintain an endowment fund to be used to repair or replace the bat gates if necessary.

CM Hannibal Missouri After Shot Steve Orr 244The gates allow the bats free passage, while keeping humans out. Photo by Steve Orr.

I recently joined the citizens of Hannibal and all our partners to formally dedicate the Sodalis Nature Preserve on October 21 and 22, 2016.  We were honored to have Michael Bean, Principal Deputy Assistant Secretary for Fish, Wildlife and Parks for the U.S. Department of the Interior, join us along with representatives from Enbridge and the Iowa Natural Heritage Foundation. “BatFest” began bright and early, with activities ranging from bat experts sharing their knowledge to pure fun for kids—of all ages.

CM IMG 3845The dedication event showcased all that the Sodalis Nature Preserve has to offer. Photo by Whitney Flanagan.

The success of this project would not have been possible were it not for the recognition of the importance of the site to the conservation and recovery of Indiana bats, the unique mitigation package negotiated by the USFWS that provided funding, the willingness of the City of Hannibal to step-up and own the property, the commitment of the Iowa Natural Heritage Foundation to secure the site with a permanent conservation easement, and the persistence of The Conservation Fund to stitch all the pieces together. The success was driven by innovation and perseverance, and it would have been impossible to achieve such a win-win for Indiana bats and the public without the help of all partners involved.

I am delighted I could participate in a project that is a huge win for conservation in Missouri and so important to the future of the Indiana bat. The project served up some of the most challenging obstacles I have ever dealt with. I spent 45 days in Hannibal in 2015 away from my family coordinating all aspects of the project, and someday I hope to repay them when I take my grandchildren to the site so they can enjoy what the citizens of Hannibal enjoy today.



Bats: Even Superheroes Sometimes Need Our Help

Click here to read more about how bats are real-life superheroes that help humanity and the earth’s wildlife in many ways. Dan Ashe, Director, U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service, writes about these amazing creatures, the major milestone reached with the dedication of Sodalis Nature Preserve, and ways we can help protect the health of bat populations. 

Protecting Open Space for People and Nature: Sodalis Nature Preserve

Want to see more about Sodalis? Click below to hear Clint speak about this amazing project.