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Public Radio's Environmental News Magazine (follow us on Google News)

Saving Bat Habitat

Air Date: Week of

In a National Geographic Radio Expedition, NPR's, Christopher Joyce reports on efforts to prevent some abandoned mines in Michigan's upper peninsula from being filled in after thousands of bats were discovered hibernating in them.


CURWOOD: It's Living on Earth. I'm Steve Curwood. Some of the deepest mines ever dug lie abandoned on a slip of land in Michigan's Upper Peninsula. Once they supported America's industrial revolution. Now they're a hazard and they're being filled in. But biologists have persuaded some mine owners to stop the backfilling. They've discovered hundreds of thousands of bats hibernating there in winter. In an NPR-National Geographic Society Radio Expedition, NPR's Christopher Joyce traveled to the Upper Peninsula, the UP as it's called, to see these new bat sanctuaries.

JOYCE: Place names tell the history of the UP. Mohawk and Menominee, for example. Big mining arrived and there was Die Right and Copper Harbor. And from the old country came places like Toivola [phonetic spelling] and Finlander Bay.

(An accordion plays)

MORLANEN: [phonetic spelling] My name is Art Morlanen [phonetic spelling], born and raised on a farm here about five miles from us.

JOYCE: Morlanen [phonetic spelling] is 83 years old. His parents immigrated from Finland. His father would ski down to his job in the mines. Art preferred farming and playing the accordion.

MORLANEN: [phonetic spelling] And I knew the miners and the lumberjacks. I learned a lot of their words to this music, through the lumberjacks and miners. (Sings in Finnish)

JOYCE: Morlanen [phonetic spelling] says there's not much call for songs from Finland any more. Young people prefer rock and roll now. The mines are closed. Gone with them, a trunk of American history. And that bothers mining enthusiast Steve Smith.

SMITH: All the artifacts are pretty much buried or rotted away. The tunnels [phonetic spelling] are either burned or hauled away, and vandalized and destroyed.

JOYCE: Eight years ago, Smith found a way to save the mines: bats. He discovered hundreds of thousands of hibernating bats inside the abandoned mines. Since then, a group called Bat Conservation International, along with the government's Natural Resources Conservation Service, has been keeping some of the mines open.

SMITH: It's really interesting that it would take something like a little, tiny animal to save this entire historical era from destruction. Because it would have been lost totally.

JOYCE: BCI regularly sends biologist Dan Taylor up to the UP to find out where the bats are hibernating. Most days you'll find him where we did, surveying a mine. In this case, the old Quincy Mine.


JOYCE: Taylor says bats are valuable. They eat insects. They pollinate plants.

TAYLOR: They really are an amazing animal. And one of these little bats will live over 30 years. They really are very, actually, intelligent little animals. They're very gentle animals. Once you get to know them, to know them is to love them.


JOYCE: For bats to use the mines, though, people have to be kept out. For that, BCI has turned to Herb Riuta [phonetic spelling]. Riuta [phonetic spelling] builds gates over mine entrances. They're like a big prison window, rows of bars spaced wide enough to let bats come and go, but keep people out. Riuta [phonetic spelling] is here at the Old South Lake Mine. The mine entrance is on top of a hill.


RIUTA: [phonetic spelling] Oh, to that birch up there it's about 300 feet. A little further up from there is an opening.

JOYCE: The hill could be a ski slope, except it's all loose rock, wet, sharp, and slippery.

(Rock falls)

RIUTA: [phonetic spelling] We're going to slide over and put the equipment up the rock pile, to that site up there. And then we're going to put the bat grate in place. But to get up there is the big thing.

JOYCE: Riuta [phonetic spelling] has a plaid-shirted crew of three men. They hoist their equipment onto a rusting snowmobile sled. It's hard work, but clearly fun. But it's just a little crazy.

RIUTA: [phonetic spelling] I'm going to go up there with the cable.

JOYCE: The idea is to hang a pulley on a tree at the top, run a cable from the sled up the hill and through the pulley.

RIUTA: [phonetic spelling] Grab the end of it.


JOYCE: And then run the cable back down to Riuta's [phonetic spelling] pickup truck.

(An engine revs)

JOYCE: The truck pulls the sled up the hill. Riuta [phonetic spelling] and Taylor grab the sled and help.

(Engines. Shouts of "You got it?")

RIUTA: [phonetic spelling] Boy, it's quite a climb. (Pants)

(Someone calls, "You ready, Herb?")

RIUTA: [phonetic spelling] Yeah!

JOYCE: The truck pulls. The sled groans up the hill a few yards. Then the truck spins in a rut.

(Spinning, shouting)

JOYCE: I climbed the hill to watch. Below there's a small stream. Evergreens and birch trees stretch to the horizon. There's no sign of people, except for these five men hauling 350 pounds of steel up a rock pile.

(Steel scrapes on rock)

JOYCE: The cable holds.

(Someone shouts, "Don't hold up, Joyce, hold it out. Yee-hah!)

JOYCE: The sled makes the top.

RIUTA: [phonetic spelling] Now he can let go of that. It's not going to go down the hill any more.

JOYCE: But there are still ten yards to go to flat ground.

(Heavy scraping)

RIUTA: [phonetic spelling] One, two, three!


JOYCE: Beyond the pile of rubble, we discover a cavern. In one wall there's a hole about the size of a garbage can cover. That's the way into the mine, where Riuta [phonetic spelling] will put the gate.

(Echoes, hammering)

RIUTA: [phonetic spelling] Right now I'm going to chisel this opening of this hole.

JOYCE: As Riuta [phonetic spelling] chisels, we squeeze by and down into the mine for one last bat survey. Biologists Cheryl Ducommon [phonetic spelling] and Dan Taylor suspect this mine is a favorite hibernating spot. We switch on our headlamps and an electronic bat detector.

DUCOMMON: [phonetic spelling] It really drops off there pretty steep. So probably another wall.


JOYCE: The shaft turns and twists, flattens out, and then through a marvelous cavern.

(Quick bursts of sound)

DUCOMMON: [phonetic spelling] We just had a bat fly by, and that's the echolocation that they give.


DUCOMMON: The bat detector is a device that we use to help us. All it does is it takes the echolocation call of the bat and it puts it down into an audible range.

JOYCE: We cast our lights upwards, onto the cavern walls.

DUCOMMON: [phonetic spelling] This is just amazing to me, because all of the mines that you go into and survey and look at, you're looking for that mother lode of bats, and here it is: thousands upon thousands of bats as far as your eye can see.


JOYCE: They're mostly little browns, a few big browns. They hang from the ceiling in clusters like furry grapes. Ducommon [phonetic spelling] starts a rough count of the bats, but they've already sensed our presence.

(High calls)

DUCOMMON: [phonetic spelling] This little guy right here is starting to shuffle around a little bit. They're starting to come out their torpor.

JOYCE: They're waking up, peeling themselves off the ceiling, and flying around us.

(Calls, wing flaps, drops)

JOYCE: Every spring this process repeats itself. A slow awakening, the stretching of wings, then out of the entrance in search of insects for breakfast. Ducommon [phonetic spelling] is happy to play midwife to this annual rebirth.

DUCOMMON: [phonetic spelling] The bats won't survive unless they have a place to hibernate. So, these mines enable larger populations of bats to occur throughout this entire area. They'd either have to find some other place to hibernate, or they just wouldn't exist.

JOYCE: Here, by chance, industry has served nature. That's the story this team wants people to know: that bats and old mines are worth saving.

(Morlanen sings and plays accordion)

JOYCE: For Radio Expeditions, I'm Christopher Joyce in the Upper Peninsula, Michigan.



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