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Preserving Bat Caves in Michigan

NOAH ADAMS, host:

It's DAY TO DAY from NPR News. I'm Noah Adams.

And it's Halloween. No seasonal decoration worth its salt is without the image of a bat. These flying mammals strike fear into the hearts of many people, but scientists say it's the bats who should be afraid of people. Many species are in decline because humans have destroyed their homes and made it more dangerous for them to migrate. From Hancock, Michigan, Sandy Hauseman reports now on the plight of bats and what's being done to protect them.

SANDY HAUSEMAN reporting:

The Quincy Mine in northern Michigan once produced tons of copper. Today, it's a popular spot for tourists.

Unidentified Man: And we're actually standing right at the number five shaft, and what they'd started mining out was ...(unintelligible).

HAUSEMAN: As visitors wander down dark mine shafts, they encounter hundreds of tiny bats.

Ms. LAURA KRUGER (Biologist): Little brown bats are anywhere from six to 12 grams, which if you know the weight of a paper clip is about a gram. So six paper clips.

HAUSEMAN: That's Laura Kruger, a biologist who says bats come here to escape from predators and from harsh winter conditions. In the mine, there's no snow and the temperature holds steady at 43 degrees. The Quincy bats are free to come and go since the mine remains open, but in many parts of the country, owners opt to close abandon mines to keep adventurous people from getting hurt and filing lawsuits. Dave Waldean(ph), mines coordinator for Bat Conservation International, or BCI, says thousands of bats have been trapped over the years by mine owners who didn't realize the animals had taken up residence.

Mr. DAVE WALDEAN (Mines Coordinator, Bat Conservative International): They do end up being buried alive. And in some cases, we've become aware of mines that were closed with the populations or colonies still inside and we've been able to open them to allow the colony to survive.

HAUSEMAN: BCI has formed dozens of partnerships with mining companies, state and federal agencies, to install thousands of special gates that keep people out while letting bats in.

But there's a new hazard on the horizon: wind-powered turbines. Over the last two years in West Virginia and Pennsylvania, thousands of bats were killed when they collided with spinning blades. Experts are puzzled. They wonder if bats stop using echo location, a kind of radar, when migrating or chasing insects. Others like Utah State biologist Adam Kozlowski say bats may surf the wind as they migrate.

Mr. ADAM KOWALSKI (Utah State University): Bats and also birds, to a great extent, use those air currents and flows in their migratory patterns to save energy. They have in some cases thousands of miles to travel, and they utilize every resource they can to make that easier on themselves.

HAUSEMAN: Bat Conservation International is looking into that and other theories, and in Utah, Kozlowski has formed a statewide coalition of 16 agencies that will track bat migration and discourage location of new wind farms in those flyways. He sees growing public support for protecting bats from this and other hazards. When his agency first announced plans for a public bat watch near Salt Lake City, more than 115 people waited patiently in the rain.

Mr. KOWALSKI: The bats fly out of this old warehouse and fly right over our heads, and there are a lot of smiles and I was just--I was really heartened by the fact that so many folks would deem that a worthy experience for a Friday evening to go out and check out some bats.

HAUSEMAN: He says bats don't attack people and they rarely carry rabies. What they do is to eat bugs. BCI's Jim Kennedy cites statistics from the Bracken cave in Texas, home to the world's largest colony of bats.

Mr. JIM KENNEDY (Bat Conservation International): There's 20 to 40 million bats there, and they eat 200 tons of insects every night.

HAUSEMAN: That's an important service for farmers, and it helps protect people from insect-born diseases like West Nile. So this Halloween, the experts hope Americans will stop fearing bats and start celebrating them.

(Soundbite of bats)

HAUSEMAN: For NPR News, I'm Sandy Hauseman.

(Soundbite of bats) Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

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Sandy Hausman joined our news team in 2008 after honing her radio skills in Chicago. Since then, she's won several national awards for her reporting from the Society of Professional Journalists, the Society of Environmental Journalists, the Radio, Television and Digital News Association and the Public Radio News Directors' Association.