Media & Education
BATS Magazine

Volume 13, Issue 3, Fall 1995


His name has appeared in this magazine many times before, but few people know about the adventure, risk, and personal sacrifice behind Bob Currie's incredible dedication to bat conservation . . .

By McCabe, Sara

His name has appeared in this magazine many times before, but few people know about the adventure, risk, and personal sacrifice behind Bob Currie's incredible dedication to bat conservation . . .

By Sara McCabe

In 1979, before BCI had been officially founded, Merlin Tuttle held his first bat management training session for four U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service biologists. Like any trainer, Tuttle hoped that his students would go on to use what they learned to greatest benefit. But he could never have guessed how much good one of them would do in the years to follow. By mere circumstance, a biologist named Robert Currie joined the training when a co-worker had to drop out. In the 16 years since, Bob Currie has helped change the face of bat conservation, both within the framework of the government and as a private citizen. He has become one of BCI's most effective government liaisons, workshop lecturers, and bat cave protectors.

Looking back, it's surprising that Currie made it through the training at all. BCI members who have been with Tuttle in the field know that he doesn't understand the typical human aversion to high-risk situations. He took the trainees to New Fern Cave in Alabama, where he posed their first challenge at an entrance known as "The Morgue"--a 75-foot climb down a cliff, followed by a 105-foot drop into a pit. The trainees were expected to rappel into the pit, hanging in midair, obscured in fog, out of view of the rest of the team, and assured only by Tuttle's promises that, yes, of course the rope would reach the bottom of the cave. Currie was waiting at the lip, second in line to go down, when the first trainee began to yell that he was stuck; the brake on the rope wouldn't let up and he couldn't go any further. Though Tuttle eventually coached him to the bottom, everyone was sure that Currie would be too frightened to follow. "I was fairly anxious," recalls Currie, "but it was such a privilege to see inside that cave that I got over it." With little hesitation, he took the rope and plunged downward. And though the rest of the training was not much easier, the team learned many invaluable skills: rappelling, cave navigation, how to recognize evidence of bat use, how to identify species, and how to estimate colony size by droppings and stains on the ceiling.

After the training, bat conservation became a large part of Currie's job responsibility, but it became an even larger part of his personal life, as it constantly spilled over into his weekends. Because Currie is responsible for many different kinds of flora and fauna, he can devote only a portion of his forty hours a week to bats. Yet he has enough bat projects for two full-time jobs: he is on recovery teams for endangered bats; trains other biologists, conservationists, and government employees in bat management; acts as a consultant to numerous federal agencies; finds and protects caves with important populations; and has helped produce a variety of publications used in training programs and workshops.

But Currie's primary focus has been on gating cave and abandoned mine entrances to protect important bat roosting sites. For those unfamiliar with gating, it is the process of designing and installing a grid of steel bars to protect a cave or mine entrance. The gate keeps humans out, but allows bats to come and go and also permits air to circulate, maintaining the normal climate and ecology of the cave. Because funding is scarce, Currie must count on volunteers for the labor and know-how needed to gate caves. And these volunteers--who are dentists, plumbers, computer programmers--are typically available only on weekends. So, for sixteen years, Currie has worked around the clock, going beyond the requirements of his job, beyond the scope of his salary and official funding, and beyond normal endurance to lead some of the most ambitious bat conservation projects ever accomplished in North America.

The gating of Hubbard's Cave in 1985 (BATS, December 1985) was perhaps the most challenging project of his career thus far. With a 31-foot-tall, 18-ton gate--the largest of its type ever built--Hubbard's was an enormous undertaking. For the six-week duration of the project, Currie worked full weeks at his office in Asheville, North Carolina, then left each Friday evening for the Cumberland Mountains in central Tennessee. He would return home late Sunday and start all over again Monday. Because he and other project leaders arranged to have much of the labor, materials, lodging, food, and gas donated, the total outlay for the project was a fraction of what it might have been. More than 100 volunteers assisted, and in the end they had protected one of the world's largest aggregations of hibernating bats, including endangered gray bats (Myotis grisescens) and six other species.

But for many of the volunteers, the Hubbard's project is memorable for another reason--it almost killed Bob Currie. Parts of the enormous steel gate for the cave had to be pulled uphill to be lowered into position. The rope attached to the steel went through a large pulley anchored at the top of the hill. Among five people pulling the rope, Currie was first in line, standing on the lip of a sinkhole about 40 feet deep. There was so much pressure on the anchor that it snapped, sending rope, pulley, and steel rocketing downward. Currie was knocked into the air several feet, fell on his back, and would have slid over the edge of the sinkhole had it not been for the quick action of another worker, who jumped directly on his chest. In the hospital later that day, with stitches in his elbow and three cracked ribs, Currie surmised, "That pulley must have hit me really hard in the chest." His friend Charlie Rice just laughed: "That wasn't the pulley, Bob. I jumped on you with both feet." Currie took the next weekend off but was back for the rest of the project, along with his wife, Joy Franklin, who insisted on joining him until the job was finished.

As is the case with most projects Currie helps organize, the volunteers at Hubbard's Cave were "cavers," members of the National Speleological Society (NSS) or the American Cave Conservation Association (ACCA). He has a remarkable relationship with the cavers in his Fish and Wildlife Service jurisdiction of Tennessee, North and South Carolina, and Kentucky. At any time there are probably 100 people willing to help with any cave conservation project within a reasonable distance.

"People are happy to work hard with someone who is going to work as hard as they do," explains David Foster, executive director of the ACCA. Currie is always involved in the manual labor, never just a manager on the sidelines. He not only hauls steel but also has learned many of the specialty skills that gating projects demand, such as how to use a cutting torch. Fellow cavers refer to him as everything from "the most knowledgeable, thoughtful, and competent caver you'll ever meet" to "a true gentleman in every sense of the word." It seems unanimous that his motivation comes straight from the heart. "I've never heard Bob blow his own horn," remarks Foster. "He just genuinely cares about bats."

People seem incapable of talking about Currie without using a cliché such as "rain or shine" or "dawn to dusk." As the actual stories emerge, it's easy to see why. Take, for example, the time Currie drove across two states to deliver cables urgently needed for a gating job: eight hours en route, a night in a motel, and then eight hours back. Another example is how Pearson's Cave in east Tennessee was gated in one weekend--Currie and a friend worked past midnight two nights in a row, and then returned to work on Monday as usual.

The long hours are, in fact, typical for gating projects, and, adds David Foster, "far worse than you'd ever expect a paid employee to work." The day ordinarily begins at 8:00 a.m. and ends at 7:00 p.m., with a 15-minute sandwich lunch. Though everyone may plan to be done by 4:00 p.m. on Sunday, rain and other problems often get in the way and push quitting time to as late as 10:00 p.m., with a two- to five-hour drive back home for most of the volunteers.

"But there's a reason Bob and everyone else works this hard," continues Foster, "When you've managed to gather all the volunteers and the necessary equipment, and you've rented a welder, you simply can't take any longer than the one weekend planned. . . . It's the satisfaction that keeps us going--you can spend a weekend and come away with this tangible accomplishment, knowing you really made a difference."

While a project may last just one or two weekends for many of the volunteers, on Currie's part, the groundwork for that same project may have taken years of work. His efforts to protect Long Cave in Mammoth Cave National Park, Kentucky, finally succeeded in 1994 after 15 years of working with the National Park Service (BATS, Spring 1994). The stories of James and Coach Caves (BATS, Fall 1993) are also remarkable examples of Bob Currie's stamina, particularly in the face of limited resources. Both of these caves are located just south of Mammoth Cave National Park, and both historically supported colonies of endangered bats; James Cave had roughly 250,000 gray bats, and Coach housed about 100,000 Indiana bats (Myotis sodalis).

Trouble began for the bats when the two caves were commercialized in the 1960s. The entrances were physically altered, blocking airflow and thus raising internal temperatures to a point where they were no longer suitable for hibernation. Tours and other disturbances worsened the situation, altogether causing both colonies to decline dramatically.

After the Endangered Species Act was passed in 1973, the Indiana bat and the gray bat were given official endangered status, and the importance of the caves was recognized. The Fish and Wildlife Service began watching the sites and planning how to negotiate with the land owners to protect them. At this point the Indiana bat population at Coach Cave had dropped from roughly 100,000 to fewer than 5,000, and only a third of the gray bats remained at James Cave.

For a variety of reasons, fewer and fewer tours were given in the following years. As the tours tapered off, the bats began repopulating at James Cave, and periodic surveys showed continuous increases. When the tours ceased around 1992, the population rose to nearly half of its original size. At Coach Cave, repopulation was still deterred by obstructions at the cave entrances. As long as the obstructions remained, the temperatures inside could not return to the level required for roosting.

The Fish and Wildlife Service proposed bat gates to the land owners and managers, but the owners were reluctant to get into any official agreements with the government. Without government funds, it seemed unlikely that a job this expensive could be done. When others were ready to give up, Currie turned to BCI, whose trustee Verne Read donated $12,000 to gate the two most critical entrances at Coach Cave. Currie stretched these funds to gate all three major openings at Coach and still had money left over to replace two old, ineffective gates at James Cave as well. Though the number of bats at Coach Cave had decreased to less than 50 by 1993 when the cave was gated, temperatures are now back to normal, and the prognosis is good.

The Coach and James Cave gatings took two summers to complete. There was no lack of obstacles, but neither was there a lack of volunteers to help. One weekend Currie's team met a group of cavers who had been researching the cave system for more than 20 years. With plans to spend the weekend mapping the caves, they were understandably wary when they discovered government officials at the entrance. They assumed the officials' presence meant that all entrances would be blocked and cavers would be permanently locked out. But when Currie told them about the bats and explained that they were still welcome to explore the cave through other entrances, the cavers spontaneously changed their plans and spent the weekend hauling steel instead.

Currie's steadfast relationship with cavers demonstrates a frequently touted trait: his respect for every individual who might have an impact on bat conservation. He points out that, without cavers' maps, it would take biologists like himself three times as long to do their jobs. "We've always asked cavers to go along with us, and they've always volunteered to join, for no fee," he remarks, adding, "They're the primary source of information on where bats are roosting."

In the mid-1980s, Currie began sharing his expertise by speaking at NSS and ACCA training seminars across the country, teaching bat management issues such as how to determine which species of bats use what caves at what time of year. "Although Bob is primarily self-trained, academics consider him to be as much of a bat expert as those with Ph.D.s," comments Dr. Michael J. Harvey of Tennessee Technological University. Certainly within the U.S. federal government, Currie is considered one of the foremost bat experts; he is a much-sought-after advisor and trainer for many government agencies, helping some, such as the National Park Service and the U.S. Forest Service, set up their own bat conservation programs.

For the past two years, Currie has also been training government officials at the Bats and Mines workshops sponsored by BCI and the U.S. Department of the Interior Bureau of Land Management. At these workshops alone he has lectured to more than 250 individuals from 44 different agencies about the use of protective gates, fences, and signs. In just this past summer he instructed approximately 100 people--more than BCI would have been able to train in a total of five years just a decade ago.

Currie comments: "When I first began giving bat talks, I would have only one or two people out of 25 to 30 who had any awareness of bats at all. Over the years the percentage of people knowledgeable about bats has skyrocketed. Now I give talks to the same types of groups, but it's not unusual to have half of them telling me ‘We already know how important bats are, now what do we need to do to protect them?' I must say that's very satisfying. The future outlook for bats is much better than it was 15 years ago."

Merlin Tuttle couldn't be more pleased: "Of all the people I've ever taught, none have made me prouder than Bob Currie. And with all the training he's doing now, I trust there will be more just like him in the near future."

Sara McCabe is Editor of BATS.


Currie Receives Distinguished Service Award

On August 8th, Merlin Tuttle presented BCI's Distinguished Service Award to Robert Currie at the 10th International Bat Research Conference at Boston University in Massachusetts. The award recognizes Currie for his efforts to protect key habitats for bats and to educate people about the importance of bats. The following list highlights just some of the conservation successes in which Currie has played leadership roles:

Gating of Hubbard's, Pearson's, New Mammoth, and Tobaccoport Caves in Tennessee--hibernation sites for a total of nearly 500,000 bats of eight species, primarily endangered Indiana and gray bats

Gating and restoration of Coach, James, Colossal, and Long Caves in Kentucky--habitat for up to 400,000 bats of six species, including endangered Indiana and gray bats Gating of Stillhouse Cave, Kentucky--the second largest hibernation site for endangered Virginia big-eared bats (Plecotus townsendii virginianus)

Gating and restoration of Wyandotte Cave, Indiana-- hibernation site for at least five species, including approximately 30,000 endangered Indiana bats

Protection of two abandoned mines in North Carolina that shelter the largest known hibernation colonies of Southeastern big-eared bats (Plecotus rafinesquii)

Member of the Indiana/Gray Bat Recovery Team

Instructor for the Cave Management Training Seminar Program

Trainer for the North American Bats and Mines Project workshops

Member of the board of directors for the American Cave Conservation Association

Admission to the world of bats often comes at a steep price. Descending this 105-foot drop at New Fern Cave was a daring prelude to a lifelong mission for Bob Currie.

This summer marked the 10th anniversary of the construction of a steel gate at Hubbard's Cave in Tennessee. Bats at Hubbard's had suffered from human disturbance since at least as far back as the Civil War, when guano was mined to make gun powder. When Bob Currie (second from right) and more than 100 other volunteers installed the gate, they protected the hibernation roost of nearly a quarter million endangered gray bats and six other species.

Gray bats hibernate in large clusters (left), making them more vulnerable to human vandalism. But this colony at Pearson's Cave in Tennesee is protected by a gate that Bob Currie helped to erect in 1989 (right). Only a few caves provide the cool but stable temperatures that gray bats require for hibernation. Pearson's Cave shelters about 180,000 gray bats, approximately twice as many as when first protected.

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