A Mine of Its Own

Where miners used to dig, an endangered bat now flourishes, highlighting a new use for abandoned mineral sites

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The mine’s Indiana bat colony has grown dramatically. In 1996, there were just about 100 bats, according to the initial census; by 1999, the population had increased to 9,000; by 2001, to 15,000; and by 2003, to more than 26,000. In fact, their numbers have been rising faster than the species can breed, meaning the mine must be attracting bats from other areas. “One day, this single site might hold more Indiana bats than anywhere else,” says Merlin Tuttle, president of Bat Conservation International. While the species is still declining in North America overall, populations are also flourishing in protected mines in New York, New Jersey, Ohio and Pennsylvania.

The Magazine Mine is one of more than 1,000 former U.S. mines that have been turned into bat sanctuaries since 1994, safeguarding millions of bats of at least 30 different species, Tuttle says. Near Iron Mountain, Michigan, the Millie Hill Mine, formerly worked by an iron-mining company, holds hundreds of thousands of little and big brown bats. And across the West, some 200 gated mine sites have helped keep the Western big-eared bat off the endangered list.

Meanwhile, bats seem to have gained a little respect. “In ten years,” Kath says, “it’s gone from people bashing bats in the attic to people asking me for advice on how to build boxes in their backyard” to house the animals, among nature’s most efficient bug zappers.

In the Magazine Mine, it occurs to me that the project has exposed a myth as misguided as the notion that all bats are blind—that every endangered species will generate an ugly battle between conservationists and industry. Here, living, squeaking evidence that cooperation is possible covers the ceiling. What better agent to upend conventional wisdom than a flying mammal that sleeps upside down?


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