A biologist with the Maryland Wildlife & Heritage Service said Monday that it is so difficult to distinguish hibernating Indiana bats from little brown bats that there is uncertainty about the number of the former in Garrett County’s John Friend Cave.
That cave is mentioned in a federal lawsuit complaint as having a robust population of the federally endangered Indiana bats. The recently filed suit asks the U.S. District Court in Greenbelt to delay the startup of Constellation Energy Group’s wind turbine project on Backbone Mountain until the company obtains an incidental take permit from the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service.
Constellation has hoped to begin operating the 28-turbine Eagle Rock project at the end of this month. Spokesman Kevin Thornton said the company has been in contact with the federal wildlife agency and is in the process of applying for the permit.
“In John Friend Cave we haven’t had a substantiated record of the Indiana bat for a long time,” said biologist Dan Feller. “But unless we go pluck every bat off the wall and spread the wings and look for the color of the hairs at the base of the fur it is hard to tell. We generally say they are little brown bats, but there could be Indiana bats in there.”
Feller enters Maryland’s bat caves once each winter to count the animals. He said John Friend Cave is among the top five locations in the state with an average of 300 various bats.
At Crabtree Cave, near the Savage River Reservoir Dam and about 10 miles from the wind turbine site, Indiana bats were observed swarming outside the cave in the autumn in the 1990s, according to Feller. “We have no substantiated records of Indiana bats at Crabtree since then,” he said.
Feller said radio tracking studies have shown that Indiana bats, mostly females and young, use Maryland forests and ridge lines during the summer.
“One study tracked an Indiana bat from a hibernaculum in central Pennsylvania to Carroll County, Md., 120 miles away,” Feller said. “We know that Backbone Mountain is within 100 miles of a number of Indiana bat (caves) in West Virginia.”
The plaintiffs in the federal lawsuit are the Baltimore-based Maryland Conservation Council, the council’s Vice President Ajax Eastman, the Oakland-based group Save Western Maryland and D. Daniel Boone, Bowie, an environmental activist.
Frank Maisano, a spokesman for Constellation and other wind energy developers, said Monday that the start-up of the Eagle Rock project is imminent.
“The turbines have already been pushing power, but it has all been for required testing,” Maisano said. “It is about to start up.”
Maisano said the lawsuit may delay the project, but is unlikely to stop it. He said other wind energy projects such as one in Greenbrier County, W.Va., have been faced with the same roadblock, but were able to move forward after obtaining the take permit, which, in essence, accounts for the killing, injuring or perturbing of bats.