Someone cut down a bunch of trees a few months ago at the north and southbound rest areas along I-71 near the Jeremiah Morrow Bridge. The remains lay scattered where they fell. Why were they taken down and why are they still there?
The short answer is: bats.
Indiana bats to be specific. The endangered species emerges from hibernation in the spring and begins migrating toward its maternity grounds, stopping in trees along the way.
"You can't clear their trees when they're occupied," says Drew Carson, a bat biologist and natural resources project manager with a private environmental consulting firm.
Indiana bats are particularly sensitive. Carson says they were listed as endangered before the Endangered Species Act was enacted in 1973. "Biologists began to notice declines in the '60s," Carson says. "They have a pretty specific set of hibernation requirements. They cluster together in very large clusters, it used to be millions now we see tens of thousands together."
Carson says impacts to winter hibernation sites led to the bats' decline. Plus, like many other bat species, the Indiana bats are also dealing with white nose syndrome, a fungus found in cold hibernation sites that's killing off bats in staggering numbers.
So what do the bats have to do with the trees along the highway?
Well, if you're planning to take down a large swathe of trees, you need to do so before the bats start heading your way. The Ohio Department of Transportation (ODOT) is tearing down its existing rest areas near the Jeremiah Morrow Bridge and building new ones in their places. The new rest areas take up more space, so about 40 trees at each rest area were taken down.
ODOT and the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service work together to go over the myriad impacts the department may have on various species. "Part of that programmatic agreement includes a lot of conservation measures," Carson says. "One of which is agreeing to clear trees for this size of a project during a certain time of year when the bats are presumed absent."
The rest areas close for reconstruction Tuesday, but the trees came down in early spring and have just been sitting there. ODOT spokesman Brian Cunningham says the agency has received a bunch of calls wondering what's going on. "Once the contract (for the rest area construction) is awarded, those will be under the jurisdiction of the contractor and they can do with them what they see fit."
Fun Facts About Bats
Carson says bats are adorable up close, but if you need more reasons for why bats are important, he offers these "fun facts:"
- Bats do $23 billion worth of agricultural pest control each year. "So without bats we're looking at a huge increase in pesticide usage and food costs going through the roof, too."
- Bats can eat their body weight in insects every night. "So if you don't like getting eaten by mosquitoes, bats are your best friends."
- Bats are in an "ecological arms race" with moths. "Moths have developed these jamming signals that they can send out to bats echolocation, and bats have worked on hunting strategies to overcome that."
- Bats are more closely related to humans than they are to rodents. "A lot of people consider them flying mice, they're actually more closely related to people than mice. That's why there's a lot of issues with disease transmission between the two of us, rabies and Ebola potentially."