Summit County parks is seeking federal approval to help a bat that may soon become an endangered species.
Metro Parks, Serving Summit County, has asked the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service for permission to establish Ohio’s first conservation bank to help the northern long-eared bat that has been decimated by a deadly fungus and is at risk of going extinct.
It is a medium-sized bat about 3 to 3.7 inches long but with a wingspan of 9 to 10 inches. Its fur color can be medium to dark brown on the back and tawny to pale-brown on the underside. It has big ears and eats insects.
The conservation bank in northern Summit County would likely be established in 2015, officials said.
A conservation bank operates much like a wetland mitigation act. Developers would provide funds to the park district to get credits that would allow them to proceed with projects elsewhere that might impact the bats. The park district would use those funds to help the bats.
Summit County intends to use the funds in and around Liberty Park in northern Summit County where bats winter in five caves in the 1,908-acre park in Twinsburg, Twinsburg Township and Reminderville, said Michael Johnson, chief of natural resources for the park district.
Protecting those caves is the park district’s No. 1 priority, he said.
The money from developers would be used to boost bat numbers and to improve habitat within a 25-mile radius of Liberty Park, he said.
The money might be used to enlarge the park for bat habitat, improve nearby forests and conduct bat research, he said.
It is unclear how much money could be raised through the conservation bank, said Neil Hess, the park district’s chief of special projects.
But the park district is not out to make a profit, he said. Whatever money is raised will be used to create a “first-class conservation bank,” he said. “We want to set a high standard.”
Park district officials are scheduled to meet in late January with federal wildlife officials outside Columbus to further discuss the proposal, he said.
The park district has been seriously looking at the proposed conservation bank for about 18 months, after Hess suggested that the park district explore that option.
A preliminary application has been submitted to the federal agency and approved. A final permit was filed about four months ago and is pending.
How banks work
Conservation banks are permanently protected lands that contain natural resource values. These high-quality lands are conserved and permanently managed for species that are endangered, threatened, candidates for listing as endangered or threatened or are otherwise species-at-risk.
Conservation banks function to offset adverse impacts to these species that occurred elsewhere, sometimes referred to as off-site mitigation. In exchange for permanently protecting the land and managing it for these species, the Fish and Wildlife Service approves a specified number of habitat or species credits that bank owners may sell.
Such banks are attractive to operators of wind turbines, gas and oil drilling and highway projects that could impact bats.
At present, there are about 105 active conservation banks that have been approved by the federal agency in the last 10 years. Together they cover 90,000 acres for 60 threatened or endangered species.
A total of 10 states house conservation banks. California is No. 1 for such banks with about 80, followed by Texas and Florida. The other states are Oregon, Utah, Colorado, Arizona, Alabama, South Carolina and Maryland. None of the projects involves bats.
The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service has proposed making the northern long-eared bat an endangered species because its numbers have been sharply reduced by the white-nose syndrome. The public-comment period ended last week.
The disease causes high mortality in caves where bats winter. It has spread throughout the East and is becoming established in the Midwest. Wildlife experts predict that the disease will spread throughout the United States.
Populations of northern long-eared bats in the Northeast have declined by 99 percent because of the disease.
It is estimated that 5.5 million cave-hibernating bats have died from the fungus since 2006 when it was discovered near Albany, N.Y.
White-nose syndrome is a fungal disease. The fungus thrives in low temperatures and high humidity, conditions found in caves where northern long-eared bats hibernate.
People cannot contract the syndrome because it requires much cooler body temperatures, but humans can spread it from contaminated sites on clothing, footwear and outdoor gear. That potentially could infect new bat populations.
Metro Parks, Serving Summit County, has trapped northern long-eared bats at Liberty Park, Johnson said.
He estimated that perhaps 1,500 of those bats have been captured, banded and released over the years. That means the northern long-eared population is likely even bigger, probably in the tens of thousands, he said. They probably represented 40 percent of the bats at Liberty Park, he said.
It is not known how many of those bats might have survived the fungus, he said.
Liberty Park once housed in excess of 100,000 bats every winter, but it is feared that the number has been sharply reduced by the fungus that was discovered there in early 2012, Johnson said. No one knows the death toll, he said.
Trapping last summer turned up zero northern long-eared bats, he said.
The park district has placed bars on five cave entrances at Liberty Park where bats are known to winter to eliminate human interference, he said.
But it is not known if the five cave areas are connected or if they are separate caves, he said.
The fungus was first found in Ohio with its 13 bat species in 2011 in Lawrence County.
Park officials are excited by the new project and its potential for helping an at-risk bat species.
What the park district is pursuing is “different but it’s really exciting,” Hess said. “Helping an endangered species is big.”
Bob Downing can be reached at 330-996-3745 or email@example.com.