A World of Wildlife in Abandoned Mines

A World of Wildlife in Abandoned Mines

Author: The Scientist
Published: October 14, 2022

“Scientists reveal how mountain lions, elk, and other animals are making use of these underground areas in Colorado.

The American West is famous for the scale and expanse of its scenery. But look more closely and it’s easy to see the marks of American westward expansion. Thousands of abandoned mines remain scattered across these vast landscapes, relics of the land and gold rushes of the 19th century. Although park and land managers think of them mostly as hazards (and many are), a new study shows that they may be important habitats for many animal species.

Research on wildlife and abandoned mines has, until recently, focused mostly on those most famous cave dwellers: bats. But a recent study in the Journal of Wildlife Management by biologist Tim Armstrong and colleagues at Adams State University in Colorado reveals that the winged mammals are only part of the story.

A few years ago, Armstrong got a tip from a friend about the remains of several large carnivores found in a mine in the local Sangre de Cristo mountains. That got him curious about whether there were any other reports of large animals going into or inhabiting mines. “I looked in the literature, and I couldn’t find that anyone had looked at this before,” says Armstrong. He reached out to the Forest Service, the Great Sand Dunes National Park and Preserve, and the Bureau of Land Management. “And no one seemed to know anything.”

Armstrong and his students got a grant to set up camera traps at the entrances to several mines in the Sangre de Cristo range to find out which species of wildlife were using them. This involved long days in the field and up to 23-kilometer hikes to mine entrances. Aside from a few anecdotal reports of wildlife at these sites, there was no guarantee that anything would show up before they went back to check the memory cards months later.

Armstrong says that the researchers hoped to see a few species of carnivores and other wildlife using the mines, but they never expected the diversity they eventually found.

Armstrong remembers the excitement of sitting down to look at that first memory card. “The first mine that we monitored, we got the images back and there was a bobcat on it, there was a bear on it. . . . When we saw those, it was like, ‘We are really truly onto something here.’”

To find out all the animals they discovered in the mine, click here. 

Photo Credit: Original Author

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