Tuesday, June 2, 2009

Barring People, for the Sake of Rare Bats

If you build it, they won’t come. People, that is.

That’s the motive behind an extreme conservation method that will hopefully bring a maternity colony of federally endangered gray bats back to a northwest Georgia cave.

The site outside Ringgold on Chickamauga Creek has been used by Native Americans, early settlers, wildlife and now vandals. The most recent set of visitors has meant trouble for the sensitive bats. The cave, marked with spray paint and littered with beer bottles, has become a popular local hangout for trespassers. Frequent bon fires set at the cave’s mouth have sent smoke into the deeper reaches, disturbing the sensitive bats and possibly causing females to abandon the site.

The cave is Georgia’s only known maternity colony of gray bats (Myotis grisescens).

Enter the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, which awarded a “partners” grant that made it possible for the Georgia Wildlife Resources Division to build the gate at the cave entrance, working with the landowner, who requested help. While considered a conservation method of last resort, the gate will bar people from entering the Catoosa County cave and disturbing the bats. The cave is not a site cavers commonly use.

“Generally we prefer to use signs or fence a cave, but this location was just too accessible for these to be of much use,” said project leader Trina Morris, a wildlife biologist with the division’s Nongame Conservation Section.

Before construction began, approximately 10,000 pounds – some 5 tons – of steel was wheeled down a steep four-wheel-drive trail of rocks and ruts to an embankment. It was then hauled by hand and pulley up the hill to the mouth of the cave. The work required extensive coordination and hundreds of volunteer hours of physical labor.

Overlooking the creek, the cave opening yawns 39½ feet wide and reaches as high as 8 feet.

Every gate is different, determined by the unique features of each cave. Kristin Bobo knows. Trained and certified by Bat Conservation International, a Texas-based organization dedicated to conserving bats and their ecosystems, Bobo has traveled around the country building cave gates for nine years. Newcomer Jason Collard helped her on this project.

The steel hauled to the mouth of the cave was quickly and expertly cut and welded into place by the team. After one section was finished, movement caught the eye of one of the workers. A small bat had flown through the bars and into the cave. Although not a gray bat, it was a hopeful sign the cave will once again become home for more of these furry fliers.

Bobo and the team of volunteers, many of them Wildlife Resources Division staff, finished the gate by mid-May. Morris will soon do checks to see if gray bats roosting elsewhere have returned, signaling that what was once a vibrant maternity colony is a possibility again, this time protected by bars of steel.

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