After the swarm

When cold winds dip down from the north, hinting that food will soon become scarce, the Indiana bat leaves its summer roost and heads to the mountains to hibernate. Outside its chosen grotto, the bat joins others, swarming into the air from dusk to dawn as it seeks a mate and feeds on insects to gain the weight it needs to make it through the winter. Nine caves shelter most of this country’s Indiana bats; when they swarm, their twisting, darting bodies can block out the moon.

The discovery of the endangered bat in Western North Carolina sparked a different kind of swarm. From the initial ban on logging public lands last June to the resumption of logging in September, words flew as thick as bats. Opposing sides spent the fall sounding off in the press.

Today, the bats are gone, snoozing in their cave somewhere in the Great Smoky Mountains. The biologists have put away their nets, and the loggers are back in the forests. The environmentalists are silent, and the press has moved on to other issues. But when spring hits, the arguments and finger-pointing will resume.

“Everyone is happy today,” said U.S. Forest Service Director of Ecosystems and Planning Larry Hayden. “We’ll see what happens tomorrow.”

The history

On May 29, 1999, Mick Harvey — a biology professor at Tennessee Technological University who’d been hired by the Forest Service to hunt for bat colonies — caught a pregnant Indiana bat in the Cherokee National Forest. Then, after catching a lactating female, Harvey and his team moved over to the North Carolina side — Nantahala National Forest in Graham County, N.C.

There, in late July, they found a male and a female that had recently given birth; Harvey tagged the female with a tiny radio transmitter, so the biologists could track its movements.

Two days later, they found it just a quarter-mile away, roosting in a dead hemlock. As dusk fell, the team watched happily as about 28 bats detached themselves from the tree and zigzagged into the night in search of insects. It was a major find — the first time a lactating female and a colony of Indiana bats had been found south of Kentucky. The discovery touched off a chain of events that would stretch well into October.

In August, the Forest Service halted logging in Graham, Swain, Cherokee and Macon counties, as required by the Endangered Species Act. Biologists equipped with ultrafine “mist nets” were sent out to search for bats. Forest Service officials estimated that the ban put about 120 loggers out of work.

Walter Hooper, a 53-year-old logger from Robbinsville, was one of them. He accompanied the biologists into the forests while they conducted some of their night searches.

“If they find a bat,” Hooper told the News and Observer of Raleigh in mid-August, “I want to see it.”

They didn’t.

Meanwhile, back in Asheville, the Southern Appalachian Biodiversity Project announced that it planned to sue the Forest Service to permanently ban logging in the national forests — regardless of the bats’ status.

“This is not an isolated incident,” SABP Executive Director Andrew George told the News and Observer, declaring, “The lack of regard for endangered species has finally caught up with the Forest Service.”

To back up his claim, George cited findings of endangered species in the Pisgah and Nantahala forests by the Biodiversity Project’s own biologists, after Forest Service surveys had turned up nothing.

Forest Service spokesman Terry Seyden pointed out that his agency had hired the team that found the bat. “We have only so many people; we are constantly scrutinizing these lands,” said Seyden, quoted in the Aug. 15 News and Observer.

The threatened lawsuit further angered loggers. Hooper helped organize a truck convoy; by the time the line of tractor-trailers and pickups chugged into the Forest Service parking lot in Asheville, they numbered nearly 50. Hooper and some others went inside to talk to Forest Service officials, while some 200 loggers milled around outside. The meeting lasted an hour, but nothing was decided.

George showed up — and was not exactly welcomed by the loggers.

“It was scary,” he told the News and Observer. “I told one of them, ‘This is 1999. We can have a rational discussion about this.’ I don’t know if he understood the word rational. But I went there to listen. I really wanted to hear what they had to say.”

Meanwhile, the Forest Service’s hands were tied by the Endangered Species Act, which prohibited re-opening the lands to logging until biologists had finished their surveys and studies.

The ban was still in effect in early September, when Rep. Charles Taylor of Brevard — a staunch supporter of the timber industry, and a former tree farmer — wrote a letter to President Clinton requesting federal disaster aid.

“While this disaster is man-made, it is no less important than a natural disaster,” Taylor wrote. “In fact, it’s worse because it is unnecessary and foolish.”

The letter proved moot, as the biologists finished their surveys without finding any more bats. On Sept. 8, the Forest Service OK’d 12 previously blocked timber sales. The loggers returned to work, but many environmentalists criticized the decision. And the six timber sales nearest the roost remained blocked, as the Forest Service waited to consult with the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service.

Then nature took over: The bats left their roost and moved to winter quarters. At that point, logging the surrounding woods would do no harm — at least until the bats came back. And the original bat stand was never in danger, anyway, as it’s in a protected area and was never scheduled to be logged. Nonetheless, the impact of the logging on the embattled bat remains unclear (see What to do?).

Meanwhile, the sniping in the media continued.

“This is just another classic case of the Forest Service putting politics before endangered species protection,” George told the Associated Press on Oct. 20. “They’ve got it backwards. They’re letting special-interest influence the direction of management for endangered species.”

But the Forest Service insisted it was looking out for the bats.

“Hopefully, we can contribute to the recovery of the Indiana bat, so it can no longer be an endangered species,” said Seyden. “That’s our charge: Not just to protect endangered species, but also to provide for the recovery of that species.”

Waiting for spring

The Indiana bat (named for the state where it was first discovered) went on the endangered-species list on March 11, 1967. The bat has been found in 27 states; its estimated population (353,000) represents a 60 percent decline since the 1960s.

It isn’t the prettiest of critters. Together, its head and body are less than 2 inches long. The hind feet are small and delicate; the fur on the chest and belly is a flat pinkish-brown, slightly lighter than the fur along its back. It eats only what insects it can catch in flight.

And right now, a lot of folks are waiting to see what happens when the bats forsake their winter caves (expected to happen around April 15) for warm-weather roosts.

“They’ll stop [logging] again to do another study,” predicts Hooper. “It’ll take them 10 weeks next time, because it took them five weeks the first time, and they were in a hurry [to get it done before the bats left]. … This time they won’t be in any hurry, because there won’t be no pressure.”

Meanwhile, the Biodiversity Project vows to renew the fight. “The logging ban will come up until the Indiana bat is protected throughout its range,” said SABP staff attorney Marty Bergoffen, asked if there would be more protests this spring.

Ultimately, the Forest Service must decide whether logging will continue, or if timber operations will be shut down once the bats return.

“Right now, we are in formal consultation with the Fish and Wildlife Service,” said Hayden. “We are waiting now for the biological opinion from them.”

And when might that opinion come?

“Hopefully, before April 15,” he said.

The blame game

Bergoffen likens the decision to lift the logging ban to “burning down a man’s house when he is on vacation.” The bats, he says, “roost in the same place, year after year.”

But the actual roosting place is 25 miles from where the logging’s being done, stresses Hooper. The Forest Service, he says, “stopped logging in four counties, and they didn’t even find another bat.” That makes him suspicious.

“I stayed 12 nights with them while they were doing surveys. They never caught no bats — not that kind of bat. There was a professor and three students that were supposed to have seen the Indiana bat, but none of the Forest Service people have ever seen the bat. Now, I’m not saying those people lied, but they could have.”

Others say the search methods used explain why no more bats were found. The best way to search, maintains Bergoffen, is with a pricey device that records the sounds bats make while flying and can determine which species made them.

“The Forest Service didn’t use this kind of surveying, because it is too expensive,” he said, adding, “The mist net will miss 95 percent of Indiana bats.”

Ecologist Susan Andrew of the Southern Appalachian Forest Coalition points the finger at Congress. “They don’t give [the Forest Service] money for wildlife surveys, although they do for logging surveys. Funding for bat studies is now coming from the Fish and Wildlife Service.” Unless wildlife surveys are conducted before logging contracts are signed, such endangered-species problems will continue to occur, she predicts.

The Biodiversity Project, however, blames the Forest Service for failing to do its job.

And Hayden says his agency is in a tough spot, caught between the loggers and environmentalists.

“I think we are trying to strike a balance, and the first thing we have to do is comply with the law. We didn’t want to violate the Endangered Species Act, so we had to take that step and close the logging down.” Hayden also observes that such disputes are nothing new: “For the last 100 years, national forests have been [sources of] conflict and debate. It’s the way it has always been.”

Dollars and sense

Even men as seemingly opposed as Andrew George and Walter Hooper do have at least two things in common: They both spend a lot of time in the woods, and neither one is ultimately concerned about the Indiana bat.

“We are against commercial logging on public lands, just in principle,” proclaims George. “The idea of exploiting and destroying public property for private interest is ridiculous.”

George, 26, has a degree in interdisciplinary studies from Appalachian State University. As the executive director of the Southern Appalachian Biodiversity Project, his main responsibilities fund raising and dealing with the media.

“I grew up being much more interested in social-justice issues,” he reveals. “I always looked for ways to rally as many people around one issue, and for me, the environment has a membership that is stronger than even some of the social issues. I love the outdoors, so the two of them together allowed me to get more into environmental organizing.”

That doesn’t mean he can’t sympathize with the loggers — up to a point.

“The loggers, sometimes, are in the forests more than the average environmental folks. … I think a lot of these guys, the reason they are into logging is that they like being outdoors, and they like hard work. But I am not going to say that they appreciate the wild, or they appreciate the ecosystems or biodiversity, because they are destroying it.”

Besides, argues George, there are better ways to make money off these lands: “These communities are gateways to some of the most magnificent ecosystems on the planet. If they can’t find ways to bring tourism in, which brings in more money [than logging], then they aren’t very economically savvy, anyway. They’ve got the goose with the golden egg, and they are determined to destroy it.”

To George, logging public lands simply makes no sense: “Not only are we logging our own public property, but we are paying for it. About $1.2 billion a year goes to subsidize public-land destruction. So if we are going to subsidize them, let’s subsidize them to do something other than destroy our own public property.”

In other words, why not use the money to pay loggers not to log? The loggers would have a nice take-home pay, and the trees would be left standing. To the folks at the Biodiversity Project, it all seems cut and dried.

Walter Hooper sees things differently.

Logging is all he’s ever known; it dominates the economies of the four counties affected by last summer’s ban. In 1997, Cherokee, Graham and Swain counties ranked 95th, 98th and 99th among North Carolina’s 100 counties, in terms of per capita income. Graham County’s unemployment rate is just over 11 percent; Swain County’s is 12.6 percent. It’s hard to find any kind of work in this region, even harder if you don’t have a college degree.

“Graham County is logging,” said Hooper. “It’s got a furniture plant and logging, and that’s it. [The ban] just about shut it down.”

Hooper says he had to take any work he could get: “I found one job … right next to the Georgia line. I was driving 80 miles to work. … It took me about 2 hours one way, because there aren’t good roads.”

Being self-employed, Hooper doesn’t have the luxury of drawing an unemployment check while biologists search for bats. But he says he wouldn’t do it, even if he could: “We got pride. We don’t want handouts — we want to work.” Born with a right arm shorter than his left, Hooper can’t feed himself with his right hand, can’t even take a cap off his head with it. But he’s been doing the tough jobs all his life.

“I’ve cut timber, I’ve run bulldozers, I’ve run skidders, I’ve done everything there is to do. I’ve never drawn an unemployment check or a disability check in my life.”

But as April 15 approaches, Hooper faces the possibility of being out of work again.

“Where would I get a job at?” he wonders. “A man with no education and 53 years old, where can he get a job? There ain’t nobody would hire him.”

Last year’s swarm is over; deep in the Smokies, the Indiana bat still slumbers in its cave. Its heartbeat is slow, its breathing nearly stopped as it waits out the cold winter months, following its biological clock. And in Western North Carolina, those most affected by this little furry animal wait with it.

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