The Echo
From the Field: Of Woodrats and Men

The Echo

From the Field: Of Woodrats and Men

Published on August 15, 2017
Written by Katie Jepson



The smell hits me square in the face.

It’s distinct – stagnant and musty – like a damp basement mixed with cat urine. It contrasts sharply with the cold streams and picturesque rolling prairies around us.

“That’s woodrat for you,” remarks Jason Corbett, peering into the dark mine adit punched into the rock face. I nod, taking several steps back from the opening in an attempt to remove myself from the smell.

SubT Team
Shawn Thomas, Nate Breece, and Jason Corbett relax outside a mine feature. 
Courtesy of Katie Jepson / Bat Conservation International

We’ve been up since 5:30 am, driving around the southern Wyoming countryside in search of abandoned mine land (AML). After many cups of coffee, and even more bumpy two-track roads later, we’re standing in front of the last feature of the day. This feature, like many of the others we observed during our trip, was part of a 19th century prospect claim – a time when enterprising young men flocked to this region in hopes of striking it rich with valuable copper ore. The AML features we’ve been assessing are broken up into two categories: shafts and adits.

Woodrats prefer adits, it seems.

I stand beside Jason Corbett, Shawn Thomas, and Nate Becca, three members of Bat Conservation International’s Subterranean Team. Also with us is Gina Clingerman, an archeologist with the Wyoming Bureau of Land Management; Erinn Shirley, the national coordinator for the BLM ALM initiative; and two BLM interns. Bat Conservation International’s Subterranean Team has been called out to help assess the status of abandoned mines on BLM land to see if any of the features are habitats for bats, such as hibernacula or roosting sites. This assessment will help the BLM determine which mines should be closed to minimize any potential hazards for humans, or, if suitable habitat is found, be gated or just left alone.

Shawn in Cave
Nate takes some measurements while Shawn records. 
Courtesy of Katie Jepson / Bat Conservation International

 Jason, Nate, and Shawn exchange glances, as if silently pulling straws as to who will venture into this odiferous mine. Soon enough, Jason and Shawn don their helmets and coveralls. Jason places his gas detector over his shoulder, and Shawn slings his cave bag over his shoulder before retrieving a bright yellow notebook. Nate, acting as ‘portal watch’, stands outside the entrance with Erin and Gina.

“Prospect Mountain number one, 6:15 in,” states Jason as he steps through the precipice into the adit.

“7:15,” replies Nate, noting the time of rendezvous. If that time comes and goes without the team touching base, Nate is to begin rescue procedures, just one part of a comprehensive safety plan to prevent any accidents or injuries on the job. Jason and Shawn disappear into the adit. A few minutes pass in silence as they venture deeper into the feature.

I observe the surrounding bedrock. Whoever prospected here must have followed the nearby river, noticed the tilting of the strata, and sought valuable ore between the rock layers. “We always note the condition of the portal,” says Nate, gesturing towards the entrance to the adit. “It’s usually the most hazardous part of a mine feature.”

“There is a mummified woodrat right here,” echoes Jason’s bassy voice from the back of the adit.

Shawn Glasses
Shawn takes detailed notes of the mine feature.
Courtesy of Katie Jepson / Bat Conservation International

 “Human disturbance?” I hear Shawn ask.

“Minimal.”

“Signs of bats?”

“Some moth wings, and what may be some old guano.”

“Recommendation?”

“Leave as-is.”

Leave as-is, I learned, means the site may benefit wildlife and poses little to no danger to humans. The team takes several more data measurements for their report for the BLM: temperature variations, depth of the cave, relative humidity, and photos. All in all, the process takes about 20 minutes, average for a small mine feature like this. 

When the duo emerges from the cave, they give themselves a once-over to ensure no hitchhikers—mostly fleas--came out with them. Then it’s time to strip off the coveralls and place them in individual bags to be washed.

The sun sits low on the horizon as we march back to the truck. It’s nearing 7 p.m. and several hours of open Wyoming highway are still ahead of us -- prime time to discuss the day’s findings with partners. At that end of the haul, warm showers await.

And not a single woodrat in sight. 

 

 

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