MVC raising funds to buy Kickapoo Indian Caverns

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The cavern is accessible via existing infrastructure. (Photo by Gary K. Soule)

This is the entrance to Kickapoo Indian Caverns. MVC would make the site free to the public.

Site would be opened up for public tours again while also being preserved

By Ted Pennekamp

 

Mississippi Valley Conservancy (MVC) is seeking $200,000 to assist with their purchase of Kickapoo Indian Caverns located west of Wauzeka. MVC will buy the  unique 83-acre site as soon as they have all of the funding. MVC Executive Director Carol Abrahamzon said $245,000 has been raised through grants and donations so far, but more is needed.

The purchase will help save one of Wisconsin’s five largest hibernating bat populations and one of the most spectacular caves in the Midwest, said Abrahamzon, who noted that Kickapoo Indian Caverns is one of Wisconsin’s longest natural cavern systems and is considered one of the biggest show caves in the Midwest.

“This stunning limestone cavern system includes an underground river, numerous cathedral-like chambers, beautifully colored ribbon stalactites and, most importantly, provides hibernacula for the federally threatened northern long-eared bat and state threatened little brown bat and eastern pipistrelle. Bats are a vital part of our landscapes and ecosystems. They help control pests, eating up to an estimated 1,200 mosquitoes per hour and are pollinators and seed-dispersers for countless plants. According to DNR staff, the location near the confluence of the Wisconsin and Mississippi rivers makes this a site of regional importance, due to the use of rivers as corridors for bat migration.”

Abrahamzon said that continued use of the site as a commercial caving or spelunking site would both perpetuate white-nose syndrome (confirmed in Crawford County) and further jeopardize the health of bat populations. 

“Our acquisition of this land would limit access to the cavern to public hikes and guided tours outside of the time frame in which bats are sensitive. It also would require footwear sanitation, ensuring protection of the bats,” said Abrahamzon. “The cavern is already developed with walking paths and electricity, providing an ideal opportunity as an outreach and educational site, and a secure location for long-term research and study.”

In addition to the unique cavern features, Abrahamzon noted that the land hosts native remnant prairie, limestone cliffs and rock outcrops, oak savanna, and oak-hickory forest, all located within the boundary of the Lower Kickapoo River Important Bird Area. The woods and savanna include many sinkholes, providing a direct conduit to the groundwater and cavern system. 

The prevention of past agricultural use or recent timber harvest have enabled the site to retain large, mature oak and functional natural ecosystems, as well as additional state-listed species, such as the prairie ringneck snake, Abrahamzon said. Archaeological features include past use as a shelter by Native Americans (dating back at least 300 years) in large part because the interior of caves are 50 degrees year ‘round. Another archaeological feature is a fossilized mastodon bone dating back 65 million years. 

The site has incredible potential for commercial use and subsequent abuse, said Abrahamzon.

“We have a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity to permanently conserve one of the most unique sites in Wisconsin. Our (MVC’s) involvement will provide crucial protections to imperiled bat populations, and provide area tourists and residents with a recreational opportunity; 83 acres for low-impact, nature based recreation and for area students to experience hands-on learning opportunities,” Abrahamzon said. “The commercial appeal of this property, combined with the imminent threat of development makes this project extremely urgent in nature.”

MVC needs financial contributions from individuals and organizations in order to purchase the site and once again open it up to the public while also protecting the archaeology and wildlife. 

“Your donation will help us to meet the fund-raising goal and complete this acquisition before it is purchased by a private party interested in further commercial development and exploitation of the cave,” Abrahamzon said. “Together we can do even more by protecting the ecologically and archaeologically significant Kickapoo Indian Caverns; as a legacy to future generations and the future of Wisconsin’s wildlife.”

Starting in 1947, Kickapoo Indian Caverns became a tourist destination where people could pay for a guided tour of the cave. Public tours ended in 2011. The owner, Delores Gaidowski, died in 2014 and her family put the site up for sale in September of 2015.

“Once we complete the purchase and do some clean-up and restoration work we will have a grand opening event,” Abrahamzon said. “We are hoping for late summer or early fall.”

Abrahamzon explained that MVC will offer a limited number of guided tours of the cave during the summer months. The land will be open to the public year ‘round. People will be able to enjoy hiking, birding, hunting, snowshoeing etc. all year.

There is a small remnant of Prairie that MVC will work on restoring and there will also be a small picnic area and primitive bathrooms. Everything will be free of charge, she said.

Individuals or organizations who wish to donate to the project can send a check or donate by credit card to Mississippi Valley Conservancy, 1309 Norplex Drive, La Crosse WI 54601 or donate online at www.mississippivalleyconservancy.org and put KIC in the memo.

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