In 2010, the North Carolina Department of Transportation proposed widening NC Highway 105 from Boone to Linville. Under the Endangered Species Act, widening that road required evaluating the project for impacts to threatened or endangered species.
“Highway 105 is a narrow corridor bordered by the Watauga River on the downside and mountains on the upside. So how would you go about four-laning that road? You are going to blast, a whole bunch. With dynamite and earth moving, I realized immediately there would be a concern for bats,” said Marella Buncick, a biologist with the US Fish and Wildlife Service.
Virginia big-eared bats are a federally endangered species found in limited areas of North Carolina, Virginia, West Virginia and Kentucky. Scientists knew that there was a population of these bats hibernating on Grandfather Mountain in the winter, but no one knew where the bats were migrating in the summer. If the summer roosting sites were located, that information could be used to plan the highway widening and any other transportation project in the area without disturbing ecologically sensitive habitat.
“Virginia big-eared bats roost in caves year-round, so when they wake up from hibernation they migrate to their summer caves, with the females coming together in a maternity roost—the place where pups are born and reared,” explains Sue Cameron of the US Fish and Wildlife Service. “A foundation for conserving bats is protecting their hibernation sites and their maternity roosts.”
To track the bats, Joey Weber, a graduate student from Indiana State University, attached radio transmitters to bats just before they left their Grandfather Mountain hibernation site. After a rigorous search over the rugged Grandfather Mountain terrain, Weber picked up a signal coming from a low crawl cave opening on the back side of Beech Mountain. Inside were 300 Virginia big-eared bats!
Locating the maternity site was a crucial step. But the next challenge came with the realization that the cave and the surrounding habitat were located on property that was for sale to be developed.
“Indiana State University contacted Blue Ridge Conservancy to get us involved in ensuring the protection of the maternity roost,” said Eric Hiegl, Blue Ridge Conservancy’s Land Protection Director. “This required the protection of several properties. We contacted eight individual landowners and everyone was interested in selling their land. That never happens.”
Through a coordinated effort with NC State Parks, US Fish and Wildlife Service, NC Wildlife Resources Commission, Indiana State University, NC Clean Water Management Trust Fund and an anonymous philanthropist, Blue Ridge Conservancy was able to raise $1 million to purchase the 174 acres needed to protect the Virginia big-eared habitat permanently.
“An old mystery was solved, and in solving that mystery we now have a great resource protected,” said Sue McBean, Superintendent of Grandfather Mountain State Park.
“These bats are incredibly sensitive and human disturbance has put them on the endangered species list,” added Katherine Etchison of NC Wildlife Resources Commission. “We hope to get them off that list one day—that is the ultimate goal. Land conservation is a huge part of that.”
In December 2017, ownership of the 174 acres was transferred to NC State Parks to be managed as a State Natural Area, a designation used to protect areas for ecological value rather than recreation. Now both the hibernation and reproduction phases for these bats remain undisturbed, increasing chances of survival and population stabilization.
Bats are incredibly important to the health of our ecosystem, especially as the primary predator to night-flying insects. They are also greatly misunderstood creatures, often feared by humans. This conservation success story not only demonstrates the importance of land conservation for ecologically sensitive species in western North Carolina, it provides the opportunity to educate the public about a species that plays a critical role in our natural systems.
To celebrate this amazing conservation success, Appalachian State University’s Documentary Film Services produced a short film to tell the story. View the documentary here.