Wildlife Exposed: Can Bernheim Forest dodge pressures of growth?

Wildlife Exposed

LOUISVILLE, Ky. (WHAS11) -- After 87 years, it is an oasis of green open to the public, but an oasis under pressure. Just 12 minutes south of the Gene Snyder Freeway, off nearly every I-65 exit, development is getting closer, businesses are expanding.

"The entire corridor is becoming one block of industry," Bernheim Forest Executive Director Mark Wourms said.

Tucked into the woods off I-65 is Bernheim Forest since 1929.

Sky11 hovered over the entrance to Bernheim and zoomed in on downtown Louisville. One quick move back revealed how close it is.

From the air, we noticed homes being built near the forest. We found even at the Bernheim exit, there's a new development already underway.

Wourms pointed out, "We used to be out in the country. We are not out in the country anymore."

Bernheim was given to the public as a donation by Issac W. Bernheim. He made his fortune in bourbon, lived in Anchorage in eastern Jefferson County, and stored his bourbon in a downtown building across from the 21 C hotel.

He wrote that his land was "for the people of Kentucky, and their friends... as a means of strengthening their love and devotion to their state and country."

Tucked into these woods, they really didn't know for sure what they had roaming so close to Louisville, until field cameras placed just a few years ago, starting revealing the amazing wilderness at our back door.

The  rare golden eagle, in fact a pair of them were found plus two golden eagles fighting over the remains of a deer.

Wourms said, "One of the things we didn't know was that the golden eagle and bald eagles would face off over a deer carcass. They're both scavengers when they want to be."

The cameras snapped away capturing footage of a white redtail hawk, beavers, bobcats, and wild pigs.

Berry remembers, "We all had to ask the question, where are they coming from?"

They are huge, but these hogs are sneaky. Deer hunters never saw them, just saw their destruction, eating everything and rooting through the ground. Berry points to one key moment,

"The trail cameras told us how many pigs, what they looked like and what we were up against, Berry said.

Bernheim launched an aggressive attack plan. Over 3 years, 150 pigs were trapped at Bernheim.

"One of the things we're very proud of," said Mark Wourms, "every pig that we caught was eaten, and they were delicious!"

To protect the wildlife and land from new subdivisions and industry, Bernheim is carrying out an ambitious growth plan of its own. They're not wasting money fighting developers. They are looking just west past I-65, toward a buffer of land that will never be developed. It is more than gold to them said Wourms.

So far they have 12 properties on the line, not buying all of them, but owners giving Bernheim conservation easements for eternity. Hugh archer with the Kentucky Natural Lands Trust is heading up the effort.

In a creative twist, and a first for Kentucky, when Bernheim needed to buy property, Archer helped them land public dollars, while at the same time Bernheim threw in privately raised cash.

Wourms points out, "We match taxpayer money and I think in some future cases, we'll try to double it or triple it."

For Archer it's simple, "It's one of the biggest assets we have in Kentucky and its one of the biggest things Louisville can do for its future."
What have the deals gotten them so far? 136 acres and a cave. So far, the deal has gotten them 136 acres and a cave with evidence of moonshining and bottlenecking.

Bernheim bought the cave and land from Louisville's Spalding University. The school had been given the land but never used it. Inside, 11 species of bats.

The cave revealed one other surprise. Deep into it, three bear dens 150 years old were found. For Bernheim's director it brings hope for the return of the two animals these cameras have not captured yet this close to Louisville.

Wourms predicts "One would be a black bear and the other would be a mountain lion. We really think that black bear will make its way to Bernheim at some point."


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