Bat cave gate due

The historical cave that has lured curious hikers and spelunkers to its entrance on the treacherous rock face northeast of the Deception Pass Bridge will be gated next month.

Matthew Hubner was one of the recreationally-minded people lured to the rock face last summer. While hiking and climbing in the area, the 13-year-old Oak Harbor boy slipped and plunged more than 150 feet to the water below. His body was never recovered.

After the tragedy, the initial reaction was to immediately seal off the cave, said Jack Hartt, Deception Pass State Park manager. Then the part-time inhabitants of the cave were made known. The Department of Fish and Wildlife and other local experts determined that the cave is home to Townsend’s big-eared bats.

“After this initially hit the media, they came to us and said, ‘yes, I think you need to close them off, but you need to be aware of what’s in there,’” Hartt said. “We certainly had the right direction, but the wrong method based on what we know now.”

The nocturnal mammals use the cave for hibernation. Cementing off the entrance would have forced them elsewhere.

“Bats notoriously have a need for quiet, dark places,” Hartt said. “And their habitats are being diminished as we cut woods and other areas that are normally used for habitat. Any remaining caves or cavities like that are prime habitat and rare habitat.”

A “bat gate” to be installed next month will effectively keep humans out while allowing the bats access to the cave. Similar to a cattle guard, the gate will have strong, horizontally-shaped metal bars.

“They have very precise spacing between the horizontal bars, a scientifically-designed width which allows the bats to fly through without feeling confined,” Hartt said. “It obviously keeps people out at the same time.”

Rare raptors have also been known to use the cave and similarly need protection at certain times of the year.

The cave itself has a fascinating history. With an 8-foot by 10-foot opening, the natural cave was expanded in the early 20th century for mining. Inmates at a prison camp located east of the cave about a quarter-mile would be marched to the mining outfit on the rock face.

“Up at the cave itself was a mining building built right on the cliffs,” Hartt said. “Down at the bottom is a place where all the materials were sent down a chute to a storage building. From there barges would come along and pick it up and haul it to different places around the counties for road building.”

In the early 1930s, the Civilian Conservation Corps used material from the caves to build Deception Pass bridge.

The obvious question Hartt has never been able to answer is why a mining operation was undertaken in such a precarious location. Was it the easy access to water or something else entirely?

“I’ve heard rumors that they were looking for gold or other rare rocks,” he said. “It’s certainly a safe place to keep prisoners from wanting to escape.”

Since Hubner was killed, people have been more wary of trying to navigate the cliff and explore the cave. The gate should prove to be the final deterrent. Hartt said the tragedy can at least prevent other similar accidents from occurring.

“This is a long-term tragedy for the family, but there is some benefit in the fact that because of this, we all benefit now by making that cave something that is not an attraction,” he said. Another cave-like hole resides just west of the old mining cave, but it is not the draw of its neighbor.

Closure for the Hubner family will be the biggest benefit.

“Mostly it’s to bring closure for the family and to be good stewards for the community,” Hartt said. “And good stewards for the wildlife.”

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