Endangered bat to delay DOT projects

In May of last year one small endangered brown bat, unhappy with her eastern Tennessee cave, embarked on a very expensive trip to Georgia.

Her detection here in a tree in Ellijay has triggered federal rules that are now set to delay $459 million worth of Georgia road projects up to a year and a half, the state Department of Transportation’s staff announced to an incredulous DOT board this week, in order that the DOT can study the projects and determine whether they injure the species and its habitat.

The affected projects cover a swath of north Georgia reaching the borders of Cobb, Fulton and Gwinnett counties, and the studies alone may cost $8 million or more.

That’s if no other such bats – the Indiana Bat – are found. If they are, more delays and costly work may occur, as the state is required to take conservation measures to protect the habitat if the project will “harm, kill or harass” the bats, said DOT Chief Engineer Russell McMurry.

Officials with the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, which located the bat, stressed it was not about one lone bat. They said that they have long believed Georgia to be a summer habitat for larger numbers of the Indiana Bat, and tracking this bat merely proved its existence here. Pete Pattavina, a biologist with the service, cited another case many years ago where one endangered gray bat appeared in the entrance to the UGA football stadium. But research did not suggest that larger numbers of that species had a habitat established here, so the service didn’t restrict any projects.

Environmental advocates acknowledged the setback for road work, but hailed the impact of the environmental law and the values of Georgia officials who are following it. Amy Atwood, senior attorney based in Portland, Ore. for the Center for Biological Diversity, said painful as it was, such action was important because any species’ removal from the web of life can have unforeseen consequences for humans.

“I’m not suggesting the Indiana Bat can cure cancer,” Atwood said. “But we as humans are not equipped to pick and choose which species should survive and which should not.”

The development is “an impediment to delivering the program,” McMurry told the DOT board, and a blow as the department works to establish an image of on-time, on-budget performance. It is a prime example of the challenges that face the department, which has often done an excellent job meeting construction deadlines once work begins, but has struggled through the preliminary work and red tape to get projects to the point of turning dirt.

According to the Atlanta Regional Commission report Breaking Ground, in the last two years more than 70 percent of all new DOT project phases advanced as scheduled, an improvement on previous years. This will be a setback to those figures.

Supporters of the law cite its success in restoring species from whooping cranes to wolves to the American national symbol, the bald eagle.

News reports show the Indiana bat’s impact in delaying projects from Iowa to New York State.

At the board meeting, McMurry levelly answered flabbergasted board members who challenged the point of the law, and whether the bat in question even existed.

“They’re not snipe best I can tell,” McMurry responded, noting that federal wildlife consultants tracked the bat with a radio sensor glued to her neck in Tennessee. McMurry maintained that he himself was the official liable to be jailed if the law was not followed.

Until now the Indiana Bat was not proved to exist in Georgia outside of the very northwestern tip of the state. “We went from 20 projects being affected to overnight 182 projects being affected,” McMurry said. As he explained that the bat’s discovery was due to federal officials’ work to track and protect the bat, board member Jeff Lewis pursed his lips and rolled his head.

“Do these bats have any natural predators?” Lewis asked, drawing laughter from his colleagues and the audience. Lewis’ district falls in the protected area.

“Other than men?”

Design for projects can continue undeterred. But construction and much land acquisition cannot proceed until workers have listened for the bats using a machine called “Anabat.” Pattavina said the federal service was relaxing some of its requirements at the outset to accommodate the sudden impact to DOT.

The department can only conduct the studies when the bats are out and about, during summer, so most of the studies have yet to start. Last year it scrambled to complete bat studies on two projects, the Northwest Corridor toll lane project along I-75 and I-575 in Cobb and Cherokee counties; and a project on Ga. 17 in Stephens County, McMurry said.

Each project in the area must be studied, and each study’s cost will vary on how big and complicated it is, according to DOT. The state’s six-year plan contains 182 projects in the affected area in danger of being delayed, DOT officials said. In general the studies may vary from $80,000 to $120,000, according to the department, meaning perhaps $8 million to deal with the 104 projects immediately at hand in the next three years. Fifty-eight of the projects closest to kickoff are the most immediate priority.

Pattavina acknowleded that having the new species added here was painful for DOT. He noted that at least it would create jobs for people to conduct the bat studies.

Looking for endangered animals with habitats in Georgia is nothing new at DOT, except for the surprise and the jolt to the program, said Glenn Bowman, State Environmental Administrator. Once DOT has a bat program it will be business as usual, much as it is with the Atlantic sturgeon or 80 to 100 other animals on DOT’s watch list, said Rich Williams, Bowman’s assistant. And if extensive monitoring finds no further sign of the Indiana Bat, DOT officials said, in time DOT could be relieved of looking for it.

As to the particular bat that entered Georgia, she was never caught. She alighted in a tree frequented by other bats, a habit of breeding females, said Doug Chamblin, ecology manager at DOT. But when traveling season begins again with summer, wildlife officials will try again.

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