By Marlene Condon
As someone who enjoys hiking and history, I understand people’s desire to open up the Crozet Tunnel. What I don’t understand is the lack of consideration for the bats within this structure, given that many of the folks pushing for the opening believe themselves to be environmentalists.
The animals making use of the tunnel should be considered stakeholders as development continues. With education, people can understand that they are sharing the tunnel and why it is so important to do this.
The reason the fate of these bats should be of especial concern is because they are under serious assault by White-nose Syndrome (WNS), a fungal disease (probably caused by Geomyces destructans) that has killed almost 7 million bats in North America since 2006.
The once-common Little Brown bat (Myotis lucifugus), which has been found in the Crozet Tunnel, has been the hardest hit of all the species affected. In some areas, only about 10 percent of pre-WNS populations of this bat remain.
Tri-colored (Perimyotis subflavus) and Big Brown (Eptesicus fuscus) bats have also been documented using the tunnel during the winter months to hibernate, and they, too, have been affected by this disease.
Many years ago, when I first heard talk of opening the Crozet Tunnel, I wrote to a Nelson County Supervisor with my concerns about the fate of the bats. His reply was essentially that there were plenty of bats and so we didn’t need to worry about the ones in the tunnel.
I’m sure the Supervisor didn’t realize that he was echoing the remarks of a Select Committee of the Senate of the Ohio State Legislature in 1857 after a bill to protect the Passenger Pigeon (Ectopistes migratorious) was brought before them.
The committee’s report stated that “The Passenger Pigeon needs no protection. Wonderfully prolific, having the vast forests of the North as its breeding grounds, traveling hundreds of miles in search of food, it is here today and elsewhere tomorrow, and no ordinary destruction can lessen them, or be missed from the myriads that are yearly produced.”
At one time the most abundant bird in North America (numbering in the billions) and perhaps the entire world, the last Passenger Pigeon died in captivity on September 1, 1914—barely more than a half-century after the committee’s report. Over-hunting and habitat destruction led to the bird’s extinction.
Should this matter to humans? Yes, it should, because every organism fulfills a function in the environment. And every time a species disappears independent of evolution, a hole appears in the interconnected web of life—in the pigeon’s case, a hole the size of half of our continent (the bird’s geographical distribution).
If such a plentiful species as the Passenger Pigeon could be wiped out by a lack of human concern, then our bats could certainly follow suit. And bats, too, comprise an important part of the ecological web of life that people depend upon for their own existence.
Bats are the primary predators of numerous kinds of insects, which, if overpopulated, could decrease the quantity of crops and timber available for human use. Bats also help to limit the numbers of mosquitoes, which often annoy people as well as sometimes infect them with diseases.
A decrease in the numbers of bats will therefore increase the usage of pesticides—a sure sign that man has messed up the proper functioning of his environment—which can be just as harmful to humans as well as other non-targeted organisms.
And because birds of prey and snakes feed upon bats, they could decline in lockstep with the decrease in bat populations, bringing about yet more dysfunction of the environment.
We are just two months beyond the centennial of the passing of “Martha”, the named Passenger Pigeon that was the very last individual of her kind. She died at the Cincinnati Zoo, having spent her last days in a drab cage bereft of the companionship of another Passenger Pigeon—a cruel ending for a naturally gregarious species.
According to the Smithsonian, “Her wings drooped and she trembled. Keepers had to rope off her cage to prevent visitors from throwing sand to make her move. She died in the early afternoon of September 1, 1914. Her body was packed in ice and shipped to the Smithsonian Institution, where she was skinned and mounted.”
This account brings me to tears. I cry, literally, not only for the individual creatures that have endured the loneliness of being the last of their kind, as Martha was, but also for me, and those like me, who mourn the loss of the Eden that was, once upon a time, planet Earth.
It’ll always remain a mystery to me why humans deliberately diminish the beauty of their surroundings.
I am making a plea for people to demonstrate the intelligence that has often been sorely lacking in the history of this country. I’d like to think I live in an area where people are not only smart enough to share the Crozet Tunnel with bats, but also kind-hearted enough to do so.
We can now understand how environmental dysfunction occurs when species are deliberately wiped out or allowed to disappear under a false sense of unending abundance. Interpretive signs outside the east and west openings of the tunnel could explain the usefulness of bats and ask folks to keep their voices low while inside to minimize disturbance of these animals.
And under the present circumstances of disease-ravaged populations, the tunnel should be closed during the hibernation months of November through March. Bats cannot afford to be awakened from their deep sleep because it depletes their limited amount of fat reserves that they need to survive until spring.
Yes, this is a slight inconvenience, but it will help all of us to avoid the various negative consequences delineated previously that will result from uncharitably insisting upon using the tunnel year-around.
I hope folks will speak out against the current short-sighted and self-serving plans for this historic structure.
NOTE: Martha is on view at the Smithsonian through October 2015 in an exhibition called, “Once There Were Billions.” Specimens of three other extinct avian species— the Great Auk, Carolina Parakeet, and Heath Hen—accompany her, all representative of human self-centeredness in the land of “plenty.”