September 28, 2021 |Chris Simpson | Wildlife

Protecting a Biodiversity Hotspot in Tennessee

It’s hard to believe, but I’ve been with the Tennessee Wildlife Resource Agency (TWRA) for 28 years. The best part of my job is working with like-minded, dedicated employees and partners to preserve and protect species of greatest conservation need. I’ve been working on the Skinner Mountain Forest project for six years now, and I’m just so proud that our work will protect and preserve these habitats and this land for future generations. I felt privileged and fortunate to work with The Conservation Fund and all the people there, whose fortitude and steadfastness saw this project to the finish line.

As background, The Conservation Fund purchased Skinner Mountain Forest in 2017 through their Working Forest Fund® as a temporary solution until the State of Tennessee could secure funding from the U.S. Forest Service’s Forest Legacy Program—funded through the federal Land and Water Conservation Fund (LWCF)—along with private funding sources to permanently conserve the property. In July 2019, the Fund transferred two tracts to TWRA, and we added those 3,041 acres to Tennessee’s Skinner Mountain Wildlife Management Area (WMA). Then just recently in September 2021, the remaining 11,723 acres were permanently protected with working forest conservation easements. The conserved forestland will be open to the public for hunting, hiking, wildlife viewing and other recreational activities, while continuing to support the local economy through sustainably harvested timber production.

8 30 21 Skinner Forest TN c David Johnston201704165 Photo by David Johnston.

My work as TWRA Biodiversity Coordinator covers 24 counties across several geographic regions, including the eastern Highland Rim, Tennessee River Valley, and the Cumberland Plateau. The gorges, ravines, cliffs, boulder fields, rivers and streams provide priority habitat for dozens of rare species.

I like to call this area a biodiversity hotspot due to the great number of different species found here. When I’m not stuck in the office, I love getting out and actually seeing imperiled species in their native environments. It is just awesome! Look up and you can find birds such as cerulean warblers, wood thrushes, and red-headed woodpeckers. Look in and around the water and you can find the green salamander, hairyfoot crayfish, Eastern box turtle (fun fact = Tennessee’s state reptile), and freshwater mussels. And as the sun sets, you can find bats, the world’s only true flying mammal.

8 30 21 wildlife collageClockwise from upper left: Red-headed woodpecker, photo by Ed Schneider; green salamander, photo by Daniel Istvanko; Eastern box turtle, photo by Phil Romans/; hairyfoot crayfish (blue morph), photo by Daniel Istvanko.

Where you find bats, you usually find caves, and that is definitely true at Skinner Mountain. In fact, there are more than 50 caves within the entire 14,000+ acre Skinner Mountain Forest property alone, including the Mountain Eye cave system. Fentress County—where Skinner Mountain is located—happens to have the most caves where the critically imperiled Indiana bats hibernate (these caves are known as hibernacula).

8 30 21 Mountain eye 1Inside the Mountain Eye cave system. Photo by Daniel Istvanko.

There’s always a feeling of mystery entering caves—going from the daylight zone passing through the twilight zone and then entering to total darkness—just wondering what you might encounter. In the caves at Skinner Mountain we’ve documented several species of bats considered to be of greatest conservation need and protected through a federal or state listing. We have the Indiana bat, the gray bat, and the Northern long-eared bat. We’ve also found tri-colored bats and little brown bats, as well as Rafinesque’s big-eared bats and eastern small-footed bats. In summertime you can also observe more common species such as the big brown bat and the eastern red bat.

8 30 21 CORA colony Skinner WMA 2A colony of Rafinesque’s big-eared bats. Photo by Daniel Istvanko. 

Bats are extremely important to the ecosystem. North American bats are best known for controlling night-time flying crop pest and mosquitoes. A pregnant or nursing female can consume their entire body weight in insects each night—eating up to 4,500 insects per night! Studies have shown that by consuming so many crop pests, bats are responsible for reducing damage to crops and decreasing farmers’ need for pesticides, which provides tremendous benefits to our economy. In the eastern United States all bats are insectivorous, but in the western part of our nation, bats are also pollinators. It’s just amazing what they can do.

Protecting Skinner Mountain Forest preserves habitat for bats during their critical stage of hibernation. Caves are super important as refuges for bats because several species have been threatened by a

disease known as white-nose syndrome, which has killed more than six million bats across North America since it was first discovered. As a biologist, I feel the weight of not introducing a pathogen into these caves or spreading white-nose syndrome across caves when I enter them for research purposes.

8 30 21 A cluster of endangered Indiana bats in Skinner CaveA cluster of endangered Indiana bats in a Skinner Mountain cave. Photo by TWRA.

For the safety of bats and humans alike, the caves are off-limits for the general public. But there is plenty of land to explore! In total, the Skinner WMA and lands protected by conservation easement span almost 19,000 acres for the public to enjoy through hunting, fishing, hiking and watching wildlife.

When I’m out in the field it is pretty cool to realize that there can be that much remote land here in the middle of the Cumberland Plateau and hour and a half east of Nashville. You can go from the creeks down in the bottom to the sandstone mountain caps at higher elevations that almost look like you poured concrete out on the land. The different types of plants that grow in that area are amazing. You can hike over the mountain and go through the oak-hickory forest and the remnant shortleaf pine trees and get down into the gorges and find the cooler shaded areas where the native eastern hemlock trees are still doing well.

8 30 21 Skinner Forest TN c David Johnston201704160 15Photo by David Johnston.

It’s still a pristine wilderness and that’s one of the things that really motivated me to even work harder to protect it. It is so pristine and wild there, when you hike through you can’t help think, “How many people have ever set foot here?”

Prior to this project, I never really thought about all the work that my predecessors put into assembling the large wildlife management areas we have now. It made me really appreciate other public lands. It feels rewarding to work on a project that will provide sustainable timber jobs to this area of the state and show that sustainable working forestry can go hand in hand with conserving biodiversity. It’s just a win-win for everybody.

Find out More

Featured story in the Knoxville News Sentinel:
Land purchase protects Skinner Mountain, a biodiversity hotspot on the Cumberland Plateau by Vincent Gabrielle

Written by

Chris Simpson

Chris Simpson is the Biodiversity Coordinator for Tennessee Wildlife Resources Agency in Region 3, which covers 24 counties. He attended Middle Tennessee State University and Tennessee Technological University where he graduated with a B.S. in Wildlife and Fisheries Science in 1992. He grew up around Nashville and currently lives in Cookeville with his wife and daughter.

Chris started to work with TWRA’s fisheries program in 1993 and moved to the Wildlife Diversity Survey Manger in 2004. He was awarded the State Wildlife Biologist of the Year in 2009 was named Regional Biologist of the Year in 2019. His current duties include working with imperiled species, mainly bats these days, due to white-nose syndrome. He also works with TWRA Foresters to review forestry prescriptions on wildlife management areas to promote the best conservation possible.

Photo of Chris Simpson by Chuck Sutherland.