Exploring openings several feet to miles underground where no natural light can reach and a person has to contort their body to fit through openings too small for their backpack may not be everyone’s idea of a great weekend. It is for Lorraine Lehman, a native of Sheridan.
She first became interested in caving in college, when her classmate, Savannah Sawyer, invited her to an outing at Tongue River Cave. Lehman’s love for caving has taken her to special places throughout the west such as Carlsbad Caverns in New Mexico where she volunteered to help band cliff swallows. In Utah, she once descended more than 1,000 vertical feet into a cave. Even with those exciting adventures under her belt, Tongue River Cave still holds a special place in her heart and she is dedicated to help it recover its former glory.
Lehman is now part of two regional chapters of the National Speleological Society, the Northern Rocky Mountain Grotto based in Bozeman, Montana, and the Hole-In-The-Wall Grotto out of Casper. She and her fellow members are actively working to clean up the Tongue River Cave. In May 2018, volunteers organized a graffiti and trash removal effort and completed trash clean up last fall and this spring. The Hole-In-The-Wall Grotto has teamed up with the Wyoming Wilderness Association and is planning more cave clean up events this summer. Sadly, just days after the gate was opened to registered visitors this April, new graffiti was found at the cave’s entrance.
Tongue River Cave, partly due to its accessibility, has become popular to even the novice, unprepared caver. This has led to it being a destination where people congregate not for the beauty and mystery of the cave but for other somewhat nefarious reasons. In their wake, they leave mounds of broken glass, fire scars, garbage, human and pet waste, and graffiti, which has damaged or destroyed the sensitive and irreplaceable cave ecosystem.
In the spring of 2018 White-nosed Syndrome, a fungus that can be deadly to hibernating bats, was discovered at Fort Laramie National Historic Site in southern Wyoming. Since then, the fungus has also been found in Jewel Cave in the nearby Black Hills. The fungus, native to Europe, was first found in the United States in 2006. Scientists suspect humans are an important vector contributing to the spread of the highly contagious agent that decimates bat populations as it moves across the continent. Cave visitors should follow decontamination protocols for clothing and gear, which can be found at https://www.whitenosesyndrome.org.
The Wyoming Game and Fish Department found that Tongue River Cave fosters an ideal year-round environment for bats. Of the 10 known bat species on the Bighorn National Forest, seven have been found to use Tongue River Cave. Two of those species are on the Forest Service’s Region 2 Sensitive Species List.
Tongue District Ranger Amy Ormseth sums it up well.
“Caves are unique resources that warrant extra care and precaution,” she said. “The Forest Service cannot prevent disturbance to these environments alone. We need everyone including partners and responsible community participation in order to continue to provide opportunities to enjoy and experience caves.”
With the help of people like Lehman and others who care, caves on the Bighorn National Forest can remain open for generations to explore this amazing underground resource. Anyone interested in visiting caves on the Bighorn National Forest needs to obtain a permit. This can be found at https://www.fs.usda.gov/detail/r2/home/?cid=fseprd515209. If you are a novice caver contact your local chapters of the National Speleological Society at http://caves.org/ or email firstname.lastname@example.org.
Remember to practice Leave No Trace, especially in sensitive environments like caves, visit https://lnt.org for details. For more information on upcoming cave clean-up events please contact Wyoming Wilderness Association at www.wildwyo.org or the Bighorn National Forest at 307-674-2600 or watch Facebook, U.S. Forest Service-Bighorn National Forest, or Twitter @bighornUSFS.
Sara Evans Kirol is public affairs officer with Bighorn National Forest.