Road work across York County could come to a standstill next spring, thanks to an unlikely adversary. Crews won’t be idle because of bad weather or right-of-way acquisition, but because of the presence of a small, winged mammal.
Engineers are being warned that projects could be delayed or stalled by concerns over the northern long-eared bat, an animal recently moved to “threatened” status by the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service. That means projects in 10 South Carolina counties with identified populations of the bat could be affected once the bats’ hibernation period ends.
Assistant York County engineer Ron Pompey said road crews won’t be able to clear trees for road-widening projects because the trees might be a habitat for the long-eared bats.
“You can’t just clear the trees out,” Pompey said. “Fortunately, all the projects under construction now have already cleared the trees they need,” but it could be a problem next April when the bats return.
“Right now, all the contractors are just waiting,” Pompey said.
The bats’ population numbers have been decimated by the outbreak of a mysterious illness known was “white-nose syndrome,” named after the characteristic effect seen in the animals as they become ill and die. An outbreak of white-nose syndrome led federal wildlife officials to move the species to “threatened” status this summer. The long-eared bat has an identified range across the northern portion of South Carolina, where it often nests in tall trees and under bridges.
The affected area includes York County, as well as Abbeville, Anderson, Cherokee, Greenville, Laurens, Oconee, Pickens, Spartanburg and Union.
Following the lead of Fish and Wildlife officials, the state Department of Transportation is advising contractors within the bats’ range to hold off on clearing trees that might contain bats, unless they conduct a study to disprove the bats’ presence.
“There are two different alternatives you can use,” said Heather Robbins, acting director of environmental services at DOT. “You can do an acoustic survey at dusk that would pick up the sounds of the bats ... or use mist netting, where nets are hung to catch the bats.”
Options like netting can be used to remove bat populations from areas that need to be cleared, she said, but “we try to do what has the least adverse impact on the bat.”
In Rock Hill, road crews are waiting to begin work on a Pennies for Progress project that requires utilities to be relocated along Celriver Road. Work won’t begin until Nov. 15, because crews can’t clear the trees until the bats retreat to their hibernacula – or hibernation nests – for the winter, usually in caves.
Wildlife officials have identified several long-eared bat hibernacula in the Upstate, Robbins said, but none in York County. Engineers have been told they can clear-cut during the bats’ hibernation season, which runs through March 31.
Limiting clearance work to that window won’t have a “significant impact” on the relocation project, said Jennifer Wilford, project manager with the city of Rock Hill. But workers might have to hurry if the city asks them to clear a larger area to allow for future road expansion.
“Otherwise, we’ll have to wait until next November,” Wilford said, “and that isn’t in anyone’s interest.”
The winter pause also could give wildlife officials time to formulate better procedures for handling bat populations. Local officials are less familiar with the bats, said environmental consultant Gregg Antemann with Carolina Wetland Services in Charlotte, because previous outbreaks of white-nose syndrome have affected species with a more northern habit range.
“They don’t really know where the habitats are,” he said. “The Fish and Wildlife Service are now scrambling to get more information on them.”
So, as the bats sleep through the winter, engineers and wildlife officials will be preparing for how best to protect their preferred roosts when they return – and still get some work done.