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ASHEVILLE — A major road-building project in Buncombe County on Interstate 26 could have been derailed by an animal that weighs less than half an ounce.
Tucked inside the draft Environmental Impact Statement for the interstate connector project in Asheville was a provision that “construction authorization will not be requested until Endangered Species Act compliance is satisfied for the northern long-eared bat.”
That stipulation was made prior to the draft’s publication in October 2015, but fears about the I-26 project’s impact on the northern long-eared bat population have since been mitigated, federal officials told Carolina Public Press last week.
The bat was listed as “threatened” in 2015, but in 2016 the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service issued a list of exceptions, known as a “4d ruling,” which will let the I-26 project move forward.
Marella Buncick, who works in the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service’s Asheville field office, said the bat species received “threatened” designation primarily because a disease known as “white-nose syndrome” was causing a steep decline in the animal’s population, not because of habitat destruction. And because the I-26 project will have little impact on forests in the area, Buncick said there’s little risk that the bat’s habitat will be affected.
But, according to Mollie Matterson, senior scientist at the Arizona-based Center for Biological Diversity, the northern long-eared bat population has dipped so much because of disease that human action that could further impact the bat is unacceptable.
“In general, the way Fish and Wildlife has treated the northern long-eared bat has really been abysmal,” she told CPP.
“Indeed, the disease is the primary threat, but because that disease has knocked the bat down so low from its former numbers, we need to do everything we can to protect the remaining bats, and that includes protecting their habitat.”
Matterson said one of the advantages to keeping the bat population high is that they are one of the only animals that prey upon insects, including mosquitoes and some other insects that are pests to crops, during the night hours. Northern long-eared bats are typically associated with old forests and big trees, where they roost during the summer months.
The bat is one of 14 federally protected species in Buncombe County, according to the Environmental Impact Statement, and is one of seven species that may be affected by the I-26 project.