Bats force quick deforestation of Route 219 corridor

Posted on January 3rd, 2013

Daily American (January 3, 2013)

More than 200 acres of trees must be cut along the Route 219 corridor before the end of March because the trees are potential Indiana bat habitats.

Pennsylvania Department of Transportation District 9 executive Tom Prestash said in a telephone interview that he is anticipating the necessary permits will be received from the Department of Environmental Protection in time for the trees to be cut. The timbering will take about 30 days. The trees have to be cut down by the end of March but do not have to be removed until later.

Bob Anderson, biologist with the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, said those trees can only be cut from November through March because those are the months that bats hibernate underground or in caves or mines. In the remaining months bats roost in trees.

“When the bats return in the spring they can adapt to the changed landscape and roost elsewhere, but if the trees are cut down when they are roosting they could be killed,” Anderson said.

A survey by U.S. Fish and Wildlife did not turn up any Indiana bats in the Route 219 corridor, but the trees still can only be cut in certain months because of the potential for bats roosting in them. The Indiana bat is a federally listed endangered species. U.S. Fish and Wildlife issued an opinion in 2010 that will allow the highway project to take place. There were no federally listed endangered species in the corridor.

“Indiana bats aren’t doing well,” he said. “An estimated 70 percent to 90 percent that dwell in caves have died from white nose syndrome.”

White nose syndrome is an illness that has killed an estimated 5.7 million to 6.7 million bats since 2006. White nose refers to a ring of white fungus often seen on the faces and wings of affected bats. Early 2011 surveys showed the Pennsylvania Indiana bat population at 518 bats, a drop of 50 percent from the 2009 figures.

“The reason bats are important is that they are the major night insect eater — moths and mosquitoes,” Anderson said. “They really aren’t flying mice like people think. Bats only have one young each year and bats can live 15 years.”

Once the permits have been received, PennDOT will advertise for bids for tree-cutting, earth-moving, superstructure construction and paving. An estimated 10 million cubic yards of earth must be removed. A pre-bid meeting that had been scheduled for Jan. 14 has been postponed because the permits have not been received. It will be rescheduled for February or March.

“Anytime you build a new roadway it’s a feat,” Prestash said. “This is going to be a great project from an engineering standpoint.”

It is expected that Route 219 from the Meyersdale Bypass to Somerset will take five years to construct at a cost of more than $300 million. The highway will have nine bridges, including one near the Piney Run Golf Course that will be 217 feet high at its highest point and 1,000 feet long. That will make it the highest bridge in PennDOT’s District 9. A diamond interchange is to be built near the Mud Pike.

“The project is still on schedule,” Prestash said. “We’re looking forward to getting out there and moving dirt.”

By Vicki Rock
Daily American Staff Writer