Franklin County residents struggle to defend endangered bats from gravel mining project | St. Louis Public Radio

Franklin County residents struggle to defend endangered bats from gravel mining project

Nov 6, 2016

It would be an understatement to call Nick Norman an animal lover. A visit to his family's 200-acre property in St. Clair, Mo., will reveal quickly that his mission in life is to save them.

For example, he has shared his home with Charlie, a 170-pound African spurred tortoise. When Norman found Charlie, he was a malnourished company mascot. Charlie now spends his days marching slowly around Norman's yard, feasting on watermelons. 

"Hi Charlie," Norman said, as he approached the tortoise. "I know you're hungry." 

One day, Norman would like to open an exotic animal rescue shelter to help those like Charlie.  But he has a more immediate concern regarding another animal that lives in his backyard: the federally endangered gray bat. Last summer, Norman found a colony of female bats in a cave near his house and became worried that the bats would be adversely affected by gravel mines planned for a site less than a mile away.

In August, he filed an intent to sue mining company Meramec Aggregates under the Endangered Species Act. The Missouri Department of Natural Resources and the Franklin County Planning and Zoning Commission were also named in the suit for allowing the first of two planned gravel mining projects to go forward.

Norman said bats were more plentiful in the area when his family acquired the property several decades ago. They disappeared for some years, but then started to reappear in large numbers. Norman especially noticed their presence along the Meramec River, near where he and his wife run a wedding venue. 

"I studied gray bats a little in college," Norman said. "I just knew there were bats here and that they could potentially be endangered."

Norman, who has a biology degree from Northwest Missouri State University, gained experience in zoology through internships. 

A view of the Meramec River from the wedding venue that St. Clair resident Nick Norman operates at his home.
Credit Eli Chen | St. Louis Public Radio

He speculated that the bats he was seeing along the river could be living in one of the caves on his property. In July, he asked Shelly Colatskie, a Missouri Department of Conservation bat biologist, to conduct a bat survey at the cave.

"We put up a net at 8:30 p.m.," Norman said. "We caught our first gray bat at 8:35 p.m. And within 15 minutes, we had to take down the net because it had become so over weighted with bats." 

All of the ones caught that night were gray bats. 

Meramec Aggregates began developing its first gravel mine project, a 10-acre surface mine, in St. Clair over the summer. The company also is seeking a permit to build a second 60-acre surface mine, which Franklin County could approve on Nov. 15. Meramec Aggregates is operated by Havin Material Service, also based in St. Clair. Company president, Lyn Havin, declined to comment. 

Operations for the first project were halted temporarily when Norman and his neighbors, who make up the 

Missouri Department of Conservation's wildlife biologist Shelly Colatskie conducting a survey at a gray bat cave on Norman's property.
Credit Provided by Nick Norman

Citizens for the Preservation of the Meramec River, filed the intent to sue. Besides seeking to protect gray bats, the residents also oppose gravel mining for several other reasons, among them concern that the activity would bring increased noise disturbance, more truck traffic and potentially hurt property values. 

Norman's neighbor, Kim Lynch, a veterinarian who operates a large animal rescue shelter in St. Clair, has contemplated moving because of the of the effect mining noises could have on her rescued horses. 

"It's going to increase their stress levels and I just want it to be calm and peaceful for them," she said. "We need concrete, I get that. I think this is the wrong place for that." 

Norman believes the mines will interfere with the gray bats' feeding grounds. Having seen bats fly out in the direction of the mining sites, he thinks they're foraging close to the cave and that mining could force the bats to fly farther to find food. 

"When you have to go several miles away to get energy, that's less energy for repopulating, making babies," Norman said. 

Norman tried to inform state and county officials about the gray bats with little success. He contacted U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service officials, who did not have records of any endangered species in the area at the time. The agency has since acknowledged the existence of gray bats on Norman's property, but did not provide a comment on this story before deadline. 

Norman hoped that filing an intent to sue would prod federal wildlife officials to study the gray bat cave. Instead,  he said agency officials stopped communicating with him. Other scientists he reached out to for help did not want to become involved in the litigation. That led him to withdraw the intent to sue in late October. 

"All we want to know is, are there going to be negative impacts to this cave of gray bats?" said Bob Menees, an attorney at the Great Rivers Environmental Law Center who represents Norman. 

Harming and harassing an endangered species is illegal under federal law. But it could be difficult to prove that any interference with the gray bats' feeding grounds by Meramec Aggregates' operations constitutes harm or harassment, due to the lack of information about the population of gray bats. 

Bats are generally challenging to study, according to Vona Kuczynska, a wildlife biologist who works for consulting firm SCI Engineering. 

"With bats, it feels like you're blindfolded and maybe wearing earplugs," Kuczynska said. "It's really difficult to see where they're going, what they're doing." 

Wildlife biologist Vona Kuczynska conducts a bat survey.
Credit Provided by SCI Engineering

Kuczynska, whose job involves surveying for endangered species on properties where developers want to build, specializes in the endangered Indiana bat and the threatened northern long-eared bat. She said bats can cover great distances, as much as 20 miles in one night, to forage for insects and believes that makes it hard to determine if developing one portion of that area could be harmful to bats. 

"Direct impacts are much easier to prove," she said. "If you knock down a maternity colony roost tree, it's measurable, whereas removing foraging area is an indirect impact, it's not measurable." 

In Kuczynska's experience, developers usually proceed with projects, even if an endangered species is found. Sometimes, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service will ask the developer to come up with a conservation plan and apply for an incidental take permit. If an endangered species is accidentally killed by a development, the company or entity that heads the project won't be penalized if it has that permit. 

Meramec Aggregates did contact the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service before developing its first surface mine. The agency only cautioned the company to avoid cutting down trees. Officials urged caution since another endangered species known to live in Franklin County, the Indiana bat, could potentially be roosting in them. 

Despite withdrawing the intent to sue, Norman and his neighbors are still fighting the projects. Recently, Norman contacted a member of the Missouri Speleological Survey, Michael Bradford, to conduct a study of the cave. Bradford began his study Nov. 4 and also intends to study three other caves on Norman's property. 

"We will discover if there are bats still present," Bradford said. "And if so, how many there are and what species they are because there may be other bats, besides the gray bat." 

The residents plan to use the information Bradford collects to continue building a case against Meramec Aggregates' activities. 

"The bats can't stand up for themselves," Lynch said. "It's kind of up to us. We're stewards of the land. That's our job."

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