Furthermore, thousands of bats die each year from conflicts with wind turbines. "Research has shown that each wind turbine kills 25 bats (yearly) on average," said Turner. To put in into perspective, the newly created Noxen Wind Turbine project in Wyoming County hosts 80 wind turbines, which amounts to at least 2,000 dead bats per year. That's just one wind turbine project out of hundreds throughout Pennsylvania.
From a distance, the opening in the mountain resembled a dark thumbprint in contrast to the gray sandstone rocks framing the entrance.
As we approached the opening, the abandoned railroad bed we were walking on transformed into a small running brook. A steady flow of cold, moist air rushed at us.
“That’s incredible! I never knew this tunnel was here, so close to home,” said my son Steve.
It was a unique opportunity for Steve and me to join Pennsylvania Game Commission biologists Kevin Wenner and Greg Turner on a late-March visit to an abandoned railroad tunnel on Pennsylvania State Game Lands 207 in Rice Township, Luzerne County. Game commission staff and private consultants had gathered to determine how to construct a metal gate across the mammoth opening – 30 feet high and 20 feet wide. The gate would protect a population of bats that hibernate deep inside the half-mile-long tunnel.
“The construction of the bat gate is Phase No. 1 of a two-part project supervised by the PA Game Commission. We hope to have it completed by October of this year,” explained Wenner.
The game commission is responsible for protection and management of bats in the state. One of the commission’s management applications is to place metal gates across natural caves, mines and tunnels – such as the abandoned railroad tunnel in Rice Township – to prevent pedestrian access inside.
Wenner said that the funding for both phases of construction was provided through mitigation projects.
“Most of the bat gates placed across the entrances of known bat hibernaculums are on private lands. Having a bat gate on state game lands is a welcome opportunity. This allows the commission to effectively and efficiently monitor the tunnel. The gate at this site will have an access door for biologists,” Wenner said.
Wenner and Turner explained that during Phase 2, a large mound of dirt will be piled in front of the gate to trap cold air inside.
This will “regulate temperature and make conditions more favorable for hibernating bats,” Turner said.
Both Wenner and Turner agree on the numerous benefits for bats in hibernacula caves guarded by metal gates. Gated entrances provide an increase in overall bat abundance. They prohibit cave dwellers and vandals from disturbing bats during winter hibernation.
Bats also seem to appreciate temperature and humidity enhancements created by the strategically placed dirt mounds. Research has shown that the endangered Indiana bat favors newly gated caves with temperature-controlled improvements.
When the group gathered at the mouth of the tunnel, Turner said, “There are four species of bats that hibernate in this tunnel. We have documented little brown, big brown, eastern pipistrelle and the rare long-eared bat.”
When he uttered the words “long-eared,” a bat fluttered out from the darkness and swirled around in front of the group.
The tiny bat slurped a drink from the brook, swooped and swirled and then landed inside the tunnel and clinged upside down alongside the jagged rock wall. Turner rushed toward the bat to make an identification.
“It might be a small-footed,” said Turner. I was able to take a photo of the little fellow, which helped Turner confirm his identification. He informed us that the small-footed bat is a threatened species in Pennsylvania.
“Finding a small-footed bat is great, but seeing one flying around in the daytime in March is not a good thing,” Turner said.
The game commission biologists have every reason to be concerned, as bat populations have dramatically dwindled to the point of extinction throughout the eastern United States. The reason: an introduced fungus that causes “white nose syndrome.”
“The disease itself doesn’t kill the bat,” explained Turner. “However, the fungus infection which encrusts the nose, face and wings of hibernating bats causes the bat to become aroused. Unfortunately, this abnormal activity uses up precious fat reserves and forces the hungry bat to leave the hibernaculum in the dead of winter to hunt for food. There are no flying insects to feed upon during the colder months and, ultimately, the bat becomes dehydrated and starves to death. Many bats that do survive have the fungal infection on their wings, which inhibits aerial hunting.”
Depleted bat populations attributed to white nose syndrome have been estimated into the millions and are of major concern among biologists.
Furthermore, thousands of bats die each year from conflicts with wind turbines.
“Research has shown that each wind turbine kills 25 bats (yearly) on average,” said Turner. To put in into perspective, the newly created Noxen Wind Turbine project in Wyoming County hosts 80 wind turbines, which amounts to at least 2,000 dead bats per year. That’s just one wind turbine project out of hundreds throughout Pennsylvania.
The future doesn’t look promising for bats, and the Pennsylvania Game Commission is none the wiser.
The agency has been reactive in its concern for bats through education, law enforcement, habitat conservation, installation of summer bat houses and hibernaculum protection – such as the planned gate installation on the state game lands tunnel. The agency supports proactive measures, such as the white nose syndrome research conducted by biologists like Turner, as well as establishing guidelines for wind energy development to reduce bat mortality.
It was promising that my son and I were able to see the bat conservation measures of the state game commission.
Steve mentioned that last summer he observed a few more bats flying around his home than in years past – “twice as many seen as last year.”
There’s a light at the end of the tunnel for bats, but only if that sacred tunnel is guarded by gates of heaven.
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