CABOT, Pa. (AP) — A swirl of black dashes, tens of thousands of bats used to swarm the Winfield Township entrance of Long Run Mine, straddling Butler and Armstrong counties, once the largest hibernaculum or bat cave in the state.
Pennsylvania Game Commission biologists trapped only 10 bats there earlier this month for a population study.
The survey that spanned 10 caves across the state this month confirms that at least 98 percent of all cave-dwelling bats in the state are likely dead, according to Gregory Turner, an endangered mammal specialist with the Game Commission.
About two miles away from Long Run Mine in Worthington, Snyder Associated Companies Inc. excavates limestone.
The company has been stung repeatedly by federal and state endangered species laws, from federally endangered mussels in the Allegheny River to state endangered massasauga rattlesnakes in Butler County.
Endangered species regulations have been responsible for delaying projects for Snyder Associated Companies for years, costing thousands of dollars for studies. The regulations also eliminated about 20 gravel-dredging jobs on the Allegheny River in 2009, although the company transferred most of those employees for other jobs.
Then there is this three-inch, furry mammal that is hanging upside down in one of Snyder's limestone mines - Long Run Mine.
The fungus from the lethal White-Nose Syndrome (WNS) is in the cave and likely will attack the few surviving bats this winter.
"I think it is a lost cause," said Darrel Lewis, chief engineer for Snyder Associated Companies in Kittanning.
"I don't think us avoiding an area, or not cutting trees is going to help," he said. "The bats are dying from another cause, and we can't stop it and neither can the Game Commission."
Trying to protect the animals, the Pennsylvania Game Commission is mired in a power struggle with an area lawmaker who wants to strip the agency of its authority to list endangered species in the state.
In fact, Rep. Jeff Pyle, R-Ford City, said that he drafted his new state bill on endangered species, known as the Endangered Species Coordination Act, in part, to curb attempts by the state to list new species of endangered bats and other wildlife.
"If the state had an effort to cure this disease that is killing all of the bats, I might be supportive of their effort if we could bring back the bat," he said. "That's not a hope. They're going to die and that's sad."
Said Turner: "We don't want to throw in the towel."
David J. Putnam of Centre Hall, vice president of the board of commissioners of the Game Commission, is not in favor of the state listing of the bats as endangered for a "feel-good measure.
"Our focus is to get as many survivors through this," Putnam said.
But how is the question.
Industry will resist any more restrictions.
"We didn't cause this kill," Lewis said. "How is it incumbent on the mining industry to pull out of the disaster?"
While both sides are trying to figure out what to do and not do, the bat population is in a free-fall. The demise is outpacing any regulatory effort to halt the near extinction of several species in the next 15 years, according to researchers.
"We haven't hit bottom yet," said Cal Butchkoski, a mammalogist with the Game Commission.
"These animals are part of the nuts and bolts of our environment," he said. "They work for us in making the environment more livable as they eat a lot of insects that can become pests and carry West Nile virus."
LONG RUN MINE STRUGGLE
The Game Commission estimates that close to 100,000 bats hibernated in Long Run Mine as recently as two years ago, making it the largest hibernaculum in the state then.
Recent surveys suggest that there now are between 100 to 200 bats at the mine.
"Here's a survivor," said Butchkoski earlier this month at Long Run Mine when he carefully unfolded one of the wings of a small-footed bat.
When held in the hand, the bat is delicate-looking and surprisingly small — about three inches long.
Butchkoski's head lamp illuminated the spots on it translucent leather-like wing, scars from an earlier bout of white-nosed syndrome.
The disease, which is found in all of the state's major bat caves, causes a white fungus to form on the animals when they are hibernating. As the fungus grows, it awakens the animals, causing them to use precious fuel reserves and ultimately die from dehydration and starvation.
"We've got to buy some time until we get some treatment," said Butchkoski. "In the interim, we've got to identify and get protection for the survivors."
Although Snyder Associated Companies don't want additional regulatory restrictions caused by a plummeting bat population, the company works with the Game Commission at Long Run to document the problem.
"We don't have a cozy relationship with the Game Commission, but in the interest of science, it was deemed to be best to cooperate with their work," Lewis said.
"All of these scientific issues and concerns need to be valid," he said. "It is in our interest to have good science from all parties."
The Game Commission has documented all of the state's five species of cave-dwelling bats in the mine, including the federally endangered Indiana Bat and the state threatened small-footed bat.
The presence of Indiana bats has prevented mining operations in the Winfield section of the mine.
As Snyder has diversified mining interests and patience with the permitting work, it has been able to operate at a number of sites.
"I don't know if we could do more than we are - just allowing the mine to be occupied by the bats," Lewis said.
Meanwhile, Putnam is waiting for answers from state biologists on saving the bats that are left.
"It's a race and the bats are losing," he said.
Information from: Valley News Dispatch, http://www.valleynewsdispatch.com