CHARLESTON, W.Va. (AP) — More than a century after the last shift of miners and final load of coal exited a hillside portal overlooking Middlelick Branch in what is now Kanawha State Forest, work has resumed at the entrance to the long-abandoned mine.
On March 16, 41 volunteers formed a brigade line on a steep hillside above KSF’s Shooting Range Road to pass 20-foot sections of steel, ranging in weight from 47 to 300 pounds, from a roadside offload site to the mine entrance via a human conveyor belt. This weekend, a smaller group of volunteers is helping maneuver the steel bars into the entrance of the old mine. There, Kristen Bobo and Jim Honaker are welding them together to form a bat gate — a floor-to-roof series of bars designed to keep people out while maintaining access and air flow for hibernating bats. Among known occupants of the mine is the northern long-eared bat, listed as threatened by the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service. Bobo is one of only two specialists in the nation authorized to install bat gates at caves, mines and archaeological sites on federal, state and tribal lands. Based in Tennessee, she covers the eastern part of the country.
“These gates are species-specific,” she said on Friday, after she, Honaker and a half-dozen volunteers muscled a 298-pound bar that will serve as the bat gate’s base into the mine portal.
“This gate will have 5 3/4-inch spacing between bars, and the bars are shaped to create the right kind of air flow for the bats that hibernate here,” Bobo said. Fifty years of research went into making gates that provide continued cave and mine access to bats and keep them healthy while keeping people out, she said.
Bobo worked for three years with Roy Powers, a Virginia engineer who built more than 300 cave gates during his career and was regarded as the nation’s top expert in the field. Despite the portal’s remote location and low-profile entry space, ample signs of human presence were found inside the mine before work on the gate got underway.
“A lot of trash and stuff like bedsheets and clothes had to be removed,” said Doug Wood, a retired Department of Environmental Protection biologist, who leads the Kanawha State Forest Foundation’s Bat Conservation Education Project, which arranged for Bobo and Honaker to erect the bat gate.
“By keeping people out, we won’t have to worry about anyone getting hurt inside the mine, and there will be less of a chance for spreading diseases harmful to bats, like white nose syndrome,” Wood said. The project’s roots can be traced back to the permitting process for the controversial KD No. 2 mine, which began operating in 2014 on a hillside across Shooting Range Road from the old KSF mine portal and was ordered closed by the DEP two years later following a series of permit violations.
Surveys to check for the possible presence of endangered or threatened species were conducted on the site of the planned 413-acre surface mine in the summers of 2005 and 2009. The earlier survey turned up the presence of a pregnant northern long-eared bat and six pregnant or lactating bats of other species. During the 2009 survey, the presence of a northern long-eared bat maternity colony was found.
Of 36 NLEBs captured in the survey, 17 were found to be producing milk for their pups.
“But northern long-eared bats weren’t listed as threatened or endangered then,” Wood said, allowing the permit process to move forward.