More than a century after the last shift of miners and final load of coal exited a hillside portal overlooking Middlelick Branch in what is now Kanawha State Forest, work has resumed at the entrance to the long-abandoned mine.
On March 16, 41 volunteers formed a brigade line on a steep hillside above KSF’s Shooting Range Road to pass 20-foot sections of steel, ranging in weight from 47 to 300 pounds, from a roadside offload site to the mine entrance via a human conveyor belt.
This weekend, a smaller group of volunteers is helping maneuver the steel bars into the entrance of the old mine. There, Kristen Bobo and Jim Honaker are welding them together to form a bat gate — a floor-to-roof series of bars designed to keep people out while maintaining access and air flow for hibernating bats. Among known occupants of the mine is the northern long-eared bat, listed as threatened by the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service.
Bobo is one of only two specialists in the nation authorized to install bat gates at caves, mines and archaeological sites on federal, state and tribal lands. Based in Tennessee, she covers the eastern part of the country.
“These gates are species-specific,” she said on Friday, after she, Honaker and a half-dozen volunteers muscled a 298-pound bar that will serve as the bat gate’s base into the mine portal.
“This gate will have 5 3/4-inch spacing between bars, and the bars are shaped to create the right kind of air flow for the bats that hibernate here,” Bobo said. Fifty years of research went into making gates that provide continued cave and mine access to bats and keep them healthy while keeping people out, she said.
Bobo worked for three years with Roy Powers, a Virginia engineer who built more than 300 cave gates during his career and was regarded as the nation’s top expert in the field.
Despite the portal’s remote location and low-profile entry space, ample signs of human presence were found inside the mine before work on the gate got underway.
“A lot of trash and stuff like bedsheets and clothes had to be removed,” said Doug Wood, a retired Department of Environmental Protection biologist, who leads the Kanawha State Forest Foundation’s Bat Conservation Education Project, which arranged for Bobo and Honaker to erect the bat gate.
“By keeping people out, we won’t have to worry about anyone getting hurt inside the mine, and there will be less of a chance for spreading diseases harmful to bats, like white nose syndrome,” Wood said.
The project’s roots can be traced back to the permitting process for the controversial KD No. 2 mine, which began operating in 2014 on a hillside across Shooting Range Road from the old KSF mine portal and was ordered closed by the DEP two years later following a series of permit violations.
Surveys to check for the possible presence of endangered or threatened species were conducted on the site of the planned 413-acre surface mine in the summers of 2005 and 2009. The earlier survey turned up the presence of a pregnant northern long-eared bat and six pregnant or lactating bats of other species. During the 2009 survey, the presence of a northern long-eared bat maternity colony was found. Of 36 NLEBs captured in the survey, 17 were found to be producing milk for their pups.
“But northern long-eared bats weren’t listed as threatened or endangered then,” Wood said, allowing the permit process to move forward.
White nose syndrome, a fungal disease deadly to many bat species, particularly NLEBs, began to appear at West Virginia hibernation sites in 2009. By 2013, researchers found that the population of NLEBs occupying hibernation caves in the state had been cut nearly in half. In some northeastern states, where white nose syndrome first appeared, NLEB populations have dropped by as much as 99 percent.
“Less than five percent of them are surviving, but they seem to be holding their own,” said Bobo.
In 2015, the year NLEBs were designated a threatened species, the Kanawha Forest Coalition, Mary Ingles Trail Blazers and Kanawha Trail Club funded a spring emergence bat survey in the vicinity of the abandoned mine portal. There, biologists captured a healthy female NLEB.
The capture proved that winter hibernation of NLEBs was taking place in the vicinity of the surface mine in addition to the summer maternity colonies documented in 2009.
The three groups of KSF users planned “to use that information to get the DEP to toe the line in preventing threatened bat habitat from being destroyed” at the KD No. 2 mine site, Wood said.
But by the end of 2015, mining activity at KD No. 2 was on hold, and had not resumed by the time a consent order with the DEP shut it down permanently the following year.
In addition to threatened NLEBs, endangered Indiana bats have turned up in Kanawha State Forest surveys. In all, nine of the 14 bat species known to occur in West Virginia have been found in KSF.
The forest’s impressive number of resident bat species and the presence of a bat hibernation site used by NLEBs and several more common species in the former deep mine prompted the Kanawha State Forest Foundation to turn the situation into an educational experience.
With funds provided by the Maier Foundation, the C.C. Dickinson Family Giving Circle, and the Hot Rod Devils’ “Rock the Park” event, the Kanawha State Forest Foundation created its Bat Conservation Education Project.
Through the project, Wood has given presentations on bat restoration and conservation at Kanawha State Forest to science classes at West Virginia State University and the University of Charleston, as well as to Kanawha Valley Master Naturalists. Nearly half the volunteers taking part in the bat gate project have been students from the two universities.
The project is also responsible for a now-complete volunteer-built quarter-mile trail to the gated mine portal and installing six interpretive signs along the path to tell the story of KSF’s bat diversity, its mining history, endangered and threatened species protection and restoration, and white nose syndrome.
The trail will be named in honor of Kevin Dials, KSF’s former superintendent, who recently accepted a new position in Mercer County. A dedication ceremony will take place later this spring.