Perry County landowner Craig Schindler has a cave running under his property that’s more than a mile long. The property has been in his family for decades, and there was a time when students, conservationists and cavers were allowed access to the cave, known as Mertz Cave, through courtesy of the Schindlers — but not anymore.
“My Grandpa used to let school kids come down to our place, spend the night and go through the cave,” Schindler said. “I had conservationists and cavers down there too before all this happened. I didn’t care.
“After this happened, no one has been in there. Not even me.”
Since U.S. Fish and Wildlife showed up to the community last fall, breaking the news that they were court-ordered to determine whether the cave-dwelling grotto sculpin was endangered, Schindler has closed off his cave to everyone. He says other area landowners are doing the same.
“I tell them no [in regard to accessing the cave],” he said. “They’re the ones who started all this; whoever found this fish. Even if they decide not to have this fish listed as endangered, they’ll find something else. They’re going to find other things to put on the list, and it won’t end here … at this point, after all of what they’ve done, I’m very hesitant about letting anyone in that cave, just for the simple fact that they’ll find something else.”
Schindler says he has several sinkholes on his property, and if Fish and Wildlife “get their way,” he will lose 18 of his 35-acre field.
“Pretty much, they’re cutting my living down,” Schindler said. “I have cattle and grow-crops, but if you take 18 acres away from a guy, that’s quite a bit.”
“Taking away his land” translates to the federal agency looking to fence off all sinkholes to act as a buffer zone around each one. Currently, Perry County officials are in the process of negotiating with Fish and Wildlife to try and eliminate the size of buffer zones around each sinkhole.
“They’re still in the process of figuring all of this out,” Schindler said. “[Fish and Wildlife] are wanting to fence off all these sinkholes … I’m going to have to pay for this fence out of my pocket, and lose the ground for cattle to graze on. They’re talking about a 25-foot [buffer zone] around each hole. But what [Fish and Wildlife] really wants to do is make it 100 feet, but could settle for 50.”
He says he’s putting his faith in city and county officials to tackle this.
“Right now I’m just kind of laying low and seeing what’s going to happen,” he said. “And I’ve shut the cave off to everybody.”
Schindler is, to say the least, heated by the whole controversy.
“If you can’t physically tell me that there’s an exact amount of fish out there, are they dying?” he said. “These fish have lived in these caves for how long now? These people are crazy enough that if they found a T-Rex egg, they would hatch the damn thing and have it around to say they brought back an extinct species. That’s how crazy I think these people are … they’re not worried about the average Joe; they’re worried about some fish that nobody knows about … if they had their way, this town would fall apart.”