Conference aimed at better protecting endangered bat

November 2 2006

Transportation planners and biologists from a dozen states and the federal government are meeting this week in an effort to ensure that the millions of dollars each state spends to modify highway projects to protect an endangered species is money well spent.

The species at risk, whose habitat ranges from eastern Oklahoma to New England, is the Indiana bat. The workshop is being hosted, appropriately enough, by the Center for North American Bat Research and Conservation at Indiana State University. Attending the workshop are representatives of state departments of transportation and natural resources along with the Federal Highway Administration and U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service

Nearly 40 years after coming under the protection of the Endangered Species Act, the small gray flying mammal is showing signs of a slight comeback but there is still no consensus about just how roads - from construction through rush-hour driving - impact the creatures.

Indiana State's recently established Bat Center is out to change that.

"The more you know about bats, the more you want to protect them," said center Director John Whitaker, professor of ecology and organismal biology at Indiana State.

After devoting more than half of his 40-year career in ecology to the study of bats, Whitaker is quick to point out ways in which they are beneficial to humans, such as by eating crop-threatening insects.

In one aspect of what has become the longest-running study of its kind, Indiana State researchers have preliminary data that bats readily cross small roads to feed or mate but rarely fly over major highways such as Interstate 70.

The study involves a bat colony located near Indianapolis Airport and I-70. ISU research indicates the bats are doing well and the latest figures show Indiana among states where the Indiana bat population appears to be rebounding.

"The last two survey periods we've seen some modest increases in the population for the first time," Lori Pruitt, biologist with the U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service's Bloomington field office, said of range wide surveys conducted in 2003 and 2005.

"Indiana now has the biggest population of Indiana bat," added Whitaker. "Our bats are doing fairly well in the state."

But transportation planners are frustrated that they have to carry out a survey for bats each time they commence a highway project in an area where Indiana bats live. Planners would like to put the money into projects which would benefit the bat long term.

Counting field work in advance of construction and premiums paid to contractors to offset the impact of roads, the state of Ohio, for example, spends about $9 million per year to protect the Indiana bat, according to Tim Hill, administrator of the Ohio Department of Transportation?s Office of Environmental Services.

"We want to find more ways that we could spend the money and directly benefit the bat. We'd rather it be something that would help the bat recover than actually just adding more documents to a filing cabinet," Hill said.

Finding ways to help the Indiana bat population increase enough so that it is no longer an endangered species is among the goals of the U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service and Indiana State's new Bat Conservation Center.

"We bring together a lot of capabilities for research in ecology as well as an understanding of the regulatory requirements and the needs of the developer. In addition, the Indianapolis airport study is the single largest project on the Indiana bat. I think we tie the package together very well," said Virgil Brack, assistant director of the center and senior research associate in the ecology and organismal biology department.

If the bat is no longer an endangered species, transportation dollars that now go to protecting it could be spent elsewhere, a move that would please planners like Ohio's Hill.

"My sole reason for being here and trying to arrange for all of this is to get the U.S. Fish & Wildlife, the DNRs, the state DOTs to start talking and start thinking about new ways to work together to help the bat," Hill said.

The Indiana bat workshop, which concludes today in Indiana State University's Hulman Memorial Student Union, is co-sponsored by ISU's Center for North American Bat Research and Conservation and the American Association of State Highway and Transportation Officers? Center for Environmental Excellence.

Contact: Virgil Brack, associate director, Center for North American Bat Research and Conservation and senior research associate, department of ecology and organismal biology, Indiana State University, (812) 237- 2408 or vbrackjr@isugw.indstate.edu

Writer: Dave Taylor, media relations director, Indiana State University, (812) 237-3743 or dave.taylor@indstate.edu

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Story Highlights

States that are home to Indiana bat spends millions of dollars annually on projects aimed at protecting the endangered species from highway projects. A two-day workshop hosted by ISU's Center for North American Bat Research and Conservation is aimed at ensuring the money is well spent - and at finding new ways to help the bat population recover enough to be removed from the endangered species list.

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