PERU, Ill. — Most people would find the clammy, echoing passages of the Blackball Mine an unpleasant place to spend a few minutes, much less an evening drinking beer.
Beyond its inhospitableness, the mine, which more than a century ago supplied dolomite to make concrete for the Illinois & Michigan Canal, is dangerous: pocked with 40-foot shafts and overgrown with hackberry and oak. It also is off-limits, part of a 300-acre state nature refuge that requires a permit for public access.
But in the way kids have of gravitating to the forbidden, those from the farming communities surrounding
this maze of crumbling tunnels have been coming here for years to party on otherwise dull weekends. They have lit bonfires. They have sprayed graffiti on the rocky mine walls. They have downed six-packs. And sometimes, intentionally or not, they have killed bats.
The bats have been beaten with sticks. Others have been awakened while hibernating, a prank that can literally kill the animals: Startled, their metabolism goes haywire and they burn up precious fat needed to feed their bodies through the winter.
While such vandalism might seem innocent to urbanites plagued by teenage gang violence and other ills, the adolescent mischief in this rural pocket of the state has riled an unlikely collection of state government officials and national environmentalists.
Blackball Mine happens to be home to the largest winter bat roost in Illinois, and the destruction of some 24,000 little brown and Indiana bats-- both ravenous bug eaters--could have an unpleasant effect on area farmers.
So last week, a sweaty bunch of local cavers, acting on behalf of the Illinois Department of Natural Resources and national bat-conservation groups, hammered high-tech steel gates over the entrances
to the mine.
"Caves can bring out the bad side of folks," said Roy Powers, a bat expert from Virginia who has documented cases of willful habitat destruction around the nation. "These animals are key to our
well-being--one bat can eat 10,000 mosquitoes. Still, nobody seems too worried about their survival."
Powers, a member of the American Cave Conservation Association, whose mini-van license plates proclaim "We Cave 2," was invited to the silo-studded landscape of central Illinois to design precisely configured steel barriers for the Blackball Mine.
The steel grates, called "bat gates," allow bats to flit in and out of their gloomy underground roosts but bar the passage of humans. Though the project is the first major bat-gating effort in the state--Illinois is
not known for its bat habitats--hundreds of similar barriers have been erected in the U.S. The reason?
Biological censuses indicate that North American bat populations are shrinking, in some cases precipitously. Twenty-four of the 44 bat species in the U.S. are either federally endangered or threatened, experts say. And they include the 600 endangered Indiana bats in Blackball Mine.
The main culprits for the decline are pesticides and, even more damaging, habitat loss.
"People don't think about it, but caves are as impacted by human activities as any other ecosystem," said Dan Taylor of Bat Conservation International, a Texas-based group that co-sponsored the gating project at Blackball. "As natural caves across the country are used by recreational cavers, developed
for tourism or paved over by urbanization, bats lose their nurseries or hibernation sites."
To biologists, bats are a crucial, if underappreciated, natural resource. Far from being the sinister bloodsuckers of B-movie fame, the majority of species worldwide are fruit or insect eaters, scientists say.
In the desert Southwest, nectar-sipping bats are key pollinators for a number of cacti and agave species.
Closer to home, a study by the Indiana University showed that a colony of 150 big brown bats can devour at least 120,000 cucumber beetles, leafhoppers, June bugs and other agricultural pests over a summer growing season--a voracious appetite that collectively saves farmers millions of dollars in crop damage each year.
More spectacularly, the nation's largest bat colony--a 20 million-strong squadron of Mexican free-tail bats at Bracken Cave in central Texas--can soar 10,000 feet to chew through 250 tons of insects each night. One of the bats' main prey, a corn pest called a bollworm moth, tries to avert this aerial feasting. Airport radar has shown that the moths attempt to divert around the Bracken Cave area on their migrations north from Mexico.
"Bats even have a secondary environmental benefit, in that they allow farmers to get by without spraying so much insecticide," Taylor said.
Back in Illinois, Larry Bird, a beefy millwright and preacher who owns property next to the Pecumsaugan Creek/Blackball Mine Nature Preserve, was so impressed with what conservationists such as Taylor were saying that he decided to lend a hand.
Groups Swing into Action
to Save Bat Hangout
Ted Bulthaup of Woodridge has four of these furry creatures in his Mothers refrigerator for the sake of science (Herald Photo).
Gates to Seal Off Mine from Kids
Interested in many things, especially science and natural history, Ted still holds the record for the most 1st Place Science Awards in the State of Illinois and, among other awards, won the International Science & Engineering First Prize for Zoology for his work on the biology of bats. Over 1,000,000 science students worldwide had entered the competition. He first worked with captive Vampire Bats at Brookfield Zoo in 7th grade and later had laboratory space and equipment at Argonne National Lab’s Biology Building donated for use in his work during his junior and senior years of High School.
Between the ages of 12 and 21, Bulthaup gained a national reputation for this work, was a guest lecturer at various high schools, colleges and even the US Naval Research Center in San Diego. Bulthaup was widely covered by local and national media. The first national television coverage was with Frank Reynolds on the NBC evening news, and later in “Real People” with Sarah Purcell; also the Associated Press, Chicago Tribune, National Enquirer, etc.; and was asked to write an article about his work for National Geographic at age 18, and to locate at the Panama Research Station on Barro Colorado Island for a summer of field work.
Bulthaup was influential in inducing ComEd to donate a 212 acre tract of land to the State of Illinois for protection as a bat preserve bat preserve, as it was the location of a long abandoned limestone mine that sheltered approximately 30,000 hibernating bats of six species, two of which was endangered and one is the only surviving colony of this animal in Illinois. It is now the Pecumsaugan Creek Nature Preserve.
In this old photo, you can see the damage and deforestation of the surrounding area as the miners cut down trees for support columns and cross ties for the rail cart tracks in the mines, and for fuel for the kilns to burn the limestone to release the lye for mortar and cement.
By Paul Salopek Tribune Staff Writer. June 4, 1996
State Checking for Killer Disease at Bat Colony West of Utica
Source: U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service
Bats that live in an unused mine west of Utica are under state observation for a fungus that causes their erratic behavior and death. Monday, the Illinois Department of Natural Resources announced it was closing state-owned and managed caves that support bat populations as part of a national effort to slow the spread of the mysterious white-nose syndrome affecting bats in the northeastern United States.
The state owns the Pecumsaugan Creek Blackball Mines Nature Preserve just west of Utica and north of the Illinois and Michigan Canal towpath, IDNR Endangered Species Manager Joseph Kath told The Times. That preserve, however, acquired by the state in 1984 requires a permit for entry due to the sensitive nature of hibernating bat colonies, Kath said.
Blackball Mine is the largest bat hibernacula in Illinois. Five species of bats are known to use the mines, including the federally endangered Indiana bat.
White-nose syndrome is a new wildlife disease of unknown origin that has killed hundreds of thousands of bats across the northeastern U.S. during the past three years and continues to spread. It has recently been detected in Missouri and threatens to stretch rapidly to other portions of the Midwest — including Illinois. This fungus grows best in the cold and wet conditions common to caves and abandoned mines and likely can be transported inadvertently from site-to-site on the boots and gear of cave visitors.
Scientists are working to determine the cause of WNS. “Whatever is causing WNS may remain in caves where bats hibernate even when bats are not present, and we are concerned that people may inadvertently carry WNS out of the cave with them."
What is white-nose syndrome?
In February 2006 some 40 miles west of Albany, N.Y., a caver photographed hibernating bats with an unusual white substance on their muzzles. He noticed several dead bats. The following winter, bats behaving erratically, bats with white noses, and a few hundred dead bats in several caves came to the attention of New York Department of Environmental Conservation biologists, who documented white-nose syndrome in January 2007. More than a million hibernating bats have died since. Biologists with state and federal agencies and organizations across the country are still trying to find the answer to this deadly mystery.
Sick, dying and dead bats have been found in unprecedented numbers in and around caves and mines from New Hampshire to Tennessee. In some hibernacula, 90 to 100 percent of the bats are dying.
While they are in the hibernacula, affected bats often have white fungus on their muzzles and other parts of
their bodies. They may have low body fat. These bats often move to cold parts of the hibernacula, fly during
the day and during cold winter weather when the insects they feed upon are not available, and exhibit other uncharacteristic behavior. Despite the continuing search to find the source of this condition by numerous laboratories and state and federal biologists, the cause of the bat deaths remains unknown. A newly discovered cold-loving fungus, Geomyces destructans, invades the skin of bats. Scientists are exploring how the fungus acts and searching for a way to stop it.
- Source: U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service