The Bexar County Grotto, the San Antonio-based chapter of the National Speleological Society, is one of many caving groups across America that contribute greatly to the conservation of bats. Grotto members, by volunteering thousands of hours of loving care for Bracken Cave, are playing a vital role in helping BCI protect and manage the world's largest bat colony.
Bat Conservation International acquired the cave in 1992 to ensure this critical maternity roost for Central Texas' Mexican free-tailed bats (Tadarida brasiliensis) is permanently protected.
The huge bat population has packed the cave with guano, which has been mined intermittently since 1856 for fertilizer and as a component of 19th century gunpowder. Two historic buildings associated with the guano miners were on the verge of collapse when BCI bought the property. Bexar County Grotto teams went to work with their own materials in 1993 to restore the dilapidated structures.
First, they restored a Civil War-era guano storage shed, a task that began with wrestling the old framework back into an upright position with jacks, winches, and people power. Then the cavers replaced, and carefully matched, support posts, ceiling beams, and roof. After months of work, the once-dilapidated structure was restored to become an historic landmark - one of the oldest wooden buildings remaining in Texas.
Then the volunteers went after a battered old bunkhouse, making extensive repairs to windows, doors, siding, and foundation. They even recreated metal hinges, door pulls, and window hardware to match the original style.
"We could have torn [the buildings] down and replaced them in less time," says volunteer Kurt Menking, "but we wanted to maintain the historic quality."
Trails were painstakingly carved through the harsh landscape to ease the way for visitors. Boulders were dug out and hauled aside as the pathways were leveled and protected with fine gravel. Near the mouth of the cave, rocks were stacked into barriers to keep visitors from straying into hazardous areas.
By year's end, Bexar County Grotto volunteers had poured more than 2,700 hours into the project, converting the raw countryside into an hospitable and scenic site. And they didn't stop there. Grotto members return each spring and summer to maintain the property they worked so hard to renovate.
"The motivation to pitch in is contagious," says Grotto Chairman Rick Corbell. Workdays draw 10 to more than 30 volunteers, who repair fences and buildings, maintain tools and machinery and keep vegetation at bay with endless mowing, weed whacking, tree trimming, cactus wrangling, and occasional rattlesnake dodging.
When not improving the site, Grotto members are often out giving educational presentations on Bracken Cave to San Antonio-area schools, organizations, zoos, neighbors and other cavers - an effort that began nearly a decade ago.
"Way back when, we were self-taught via BCI's Bats: Myth and Reality video. We used to give 25 to 30 programs a year - so many that the tape wore out," says member Bob Cowell. "Teaching the next generation of property owners, decision-makers, and BCI members about the importance of protecting bats and our environment is a big deal. Education is the key."
Kurt Menking says he's "proud to be working with BCI, [which] has the expertise to protect the bats, first and foremost. I hope our relationship and volunteer efforts continue for many years to come."