Possible W.Va. economic impact uncertain as northern long-eared bats join endangered list
This photograph of the northern long-eared bat was taken by West Virginia Division of Natural Resources pre white-nose syndrome, so the picture was taken before the agency adopted measures to control the disease. (West Virginia Division of Natural Resources){p}{/p}

The northern long-eared bat will soon be reclassified as an endangered species, a designation that a state wildlife official said could potentially affect coal and gas companies in West Virginia while the effect on private landowners remains to be seen.

On Jan. 30, northern long-eared bats will be reclassified as endangered under the Endangered Species Act (ESA), the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service announced. The new classification removes rules that made it easier for businesses to comply with conservation rules. 

ESA puts protections in place for certain projects that want to build, mine, or drill on a property where endangered animals live. Particularly, it's going to affect land that has some ties to a federal agency. Alexander Silvis, West Virginia Division of Natural Resources endangered species coordinator, said that this could potentially affect coal and gas companies because they might have a clean water permit or other federal permits to mine or drill. 

"How it affects private landowners is currently unclear," Silvis said. "The Fish and Wildlife Service is working on new conservation and regulatory guidance for the species, so we won't know how exactly it will affect other landowners until the Fish and Wildlife Services has finished their conservation drafts."

This photograph of the northern long-eared bat was taken by West Virginia Division of Natural Resources pre white-nose syndrome, so the picture was taken before the agency adopted measures to control the disease. (WVDNR){p}{/p}

Silvis said the northern long-eared bat is roughly the size of a mouse. They live in caves, tree bark and tree hollows. These types of bats don't tend to live in big groups, so they are scattered all throughout the state. In comparison, the Indiana bat lives in large colonies of several hundred bats, northern long-eared bats live in colonies of 30 to 100 bats. The tiny bats also can fit into smaller places, giving them more options for places to live. 

"There's a much higher potential of a project manager or landowner encountering the bat species, or having it on their property," Silvis said. 

Kanawha State Forest created the Kevin Dials Bat Trail dedicated to educating people about bats. Doug Wood, a volunteer at the Kanawha Forest Coalition, helped build the trail and create a bat gate at the entrance of an abandoned mine at the end of the trail. 

Doug Wood demonstrates how small of crevice bats can live in by showing a split log that a bat has been inside. (WCHS)

During a recent hike up the trail, Wood told Eyewitness News how the abandoned mines in the forest are a huge draw for bats. The forest contains nine of the 14 bat species that exist in the state. 

"Matter of fact, the northern long-eared bat, more than other bats we have in the state, has a low length-to-width wing ratio, which allows it to maneuver really well in trees," Wood said. "It's actually a very good forager. It doesn't just catch insects with wings, but it detects them on branches and can forage on the branches. So, it's very appropriately adapted to a forest environment."

The bat gate allows bats to get into the mine to rest but keeps children and people out. This is an alternative to blocking off the mine site completely. Wood said more bat gates are expected to be built in the forest. 

Visitors at the Kanawha State Forest can see the bat gate at the end of the bat conservation trail. (WCHS)

If developers of a project would find these bats on their property, the company working on the project would have to hire a consultant who would figure out a way to continue the project without disturbing the bats' habitat. Wood said this could be as simple as avoiding certain areas where the bats were found. 

"In West Virginia, I don't know of any mine that has ever been stopped from mining. They've altered the boundaries, but I don't know of any that have been stopped by endangered species status on their properties," Wood said.

Wood said the northern long-eared bat has an important role environmentally to pollinate plants and keep insects in check. The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service estimates that bats contribute at least $3 billion a year to the U.S. agriculture economy through pest control and pollination. Some cities have capitalized on bat tourism, such as Bracken Cave, Texas, giving visitors the chance to view the bats as they complete migration. Wood thinks West Virginia also has the potential to profit from bat tourism.

"People are constantly asking forest personnel, 'Hey, how can we get on the bat trail? How can we go see the bat trail?' " Wood said. 

The West Virginia Division of Natural Resources is currently working on different projects to treat northern long-eared bats with white-nose syndrome - a fungal growth that infects bats' muzzles and wings. Silvis said it's a tough job because the caves they live in are delicate ecosystems, and it's also hard to find the little animals to treat them. 

"Bats are phenomenal little animals beyond being able to fly. They also are able to tuck themselves into very small cracks and crevices, so when we go into cave systems, it's very hard to interact with northern long-eared bats in particular," Silvis said.

Silvis said one way that people can help bats is by setting up a bat box or turning off unnecessary lights at night.

"If we promote and maintain bat habitat then we promote and maintain healthy bats," Silvis said. "We know that healthy bats survive white-nose syndrome better."

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