Wildlife Biologist Tries To Make Project Bat-Friendly

HOLLIDAYSBURG, PA— Wildlife biologist Cal Butchkowski has spent the last 23 years tracking bats across the state. Now, he’s trying to clear a path across a highway for them.

Butchkowski has been working to protect a nursery colony of the endangered Indiana Bat that he discovered in an old Mennonite church in Blair County. He and highway engineers are working to make a proposed bridge reconstruction project on nearby Route 22 more bat-friendly.

Although the Pennsylvania Department of Transportation has made changes to its construction plans, Butchkowski said he remains skeptical.

“The ideal thing would be to design the highway to fit the species,” Butchkowski, who works for the Pennsylvania Game Commission, told the Pittsburgh Tribune-Review. “Instead, we’re trying to make the species fit the highway.”

Butchkowski, 49, discovered the Indiana Bats about eight years ago in a 19th century church near Canoe Creek State Park. Members of the species, which has been on the federal endangered list since 1967, were hidden within a mass of the state’s most common species, the Little Brown Bat.

For more than a decade, Canoe Creek State Park has protected the 20,000 female bats of various species that stay at the church from April to October. It’s the largest known bat maternity colony in the state and one of a few colonies in the Northeast, wildlife researchers said.

When Butchkowski discovered a few Indiana Bats in the crowd in 1997, it marked the first time anyone had documented the species using a man-made structure to roost. Usually, Indiana Bats make their homes under the peeling bark of dead or dying trees. Since then, Butchkowski has counted about 100 Indiana Bats living in the church and another 50 living in a nearby garage and a “bat condo” that Butchkowski built. Only about 350,000 live in the eastern half of the country, according to the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service.

Butchkowski has studied the bats’ feeding habits by gluing tiny radio transmitters onto their backs. As many as eight times a night, the animals travel from the church, across Route 22 and to a wooded area near the Juniata River to forage for insects.The bats’ travel habits conflict with PennDOT’s plan to build a bridge to the river. The $14 million project calls for clearing a tree canopy along the highway, raising the roadway and moving it south, said Bob Cassarly, a PennDOT environmental project manager.

The problem is that the bats use the tree canopy to protect themselves from predators. Without the cover, bats prefer to travel close to the ground.

“By eliminating more canopy, it’s possible the bats will drop down to be close to the road and get hit,” Cassarly said.

Highway engineers and Butchkowski have suggested planting trees beneath the bridge to funnel the bats under the roadway. It could be possible to lure the bats to roost in an area that wouldn’t require them to cross Route 22 to feed, Butchkowski said.

PennDOT must get environmental clearance before it can move forward with the project. The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service could rule on the matter this summer. –Pittsburgh Tribune-Review