Snapshot: Abandoned Mine Lays the Foundation for Rare Bat Recovery
An abandoned Appalachian iron mine showcases the highs and lows of bat conservation efforts.

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U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service biologist Sue Cameron compared the abandoned iron mine in Avery County, North Carolina to Moria, the fictional subterranean city of the dwarves in J.R.R. Tolkien’s Lord of the Rings trilogy. To search for bats there was minimal crawling though tight passageways, but ample craning necks upward, toward the ceilings of expansive underground chambers.

Biologists gather near an abandoned North Carolina iron mine to go over last minute details for a biannual survey of the bats that hibernate in the mine.

Extraction began at the mine in the early 1800s continuing into the twentieth century. Once abandoned, the mine functioned as an artificial cave for bats, and biologists took note. The first inventory of bats in the mine happened in 1986, with regular surveys beginning in 1992.

Biologists suit up to search for bats in an abandoned iron mine in western North Carolina. The clothing and gear not only protects the biologists from the hazards of the mine, but also helps minimize the chance the biologists will carry spores of the fungus that causes white-nose syndrome between sites. After the survey, all equipment and outer layers of clothing will be disinfected.

Today, biologists with the North Carolina Wildlife Resources Commission visit the mine every two years to track bat numbers and diversity. The banner year was 2008, when more than 1500 bats, representing at least five species, were seen.

Katherine Etchison (L) of the N.C. Wildlife Resources Commission, and Service biologist Sue Cameron hike to an abandoned western North Carolina iron mine, as part of a team conducting a biannual bat survey of the mine.

The road to conserving the mine began in earnest in 2002, when the Commission acquired the mineral rights and a conservation easement conservation easement
A conservation easement is a voluntary legal agreement between a landowner and a government agency or qualified conservation organization that restricts the type and amount of development that may take place on a property in the future. Conservation easements aim to protect habitat for birds, fish…

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on the site, helping to ensure the mine would continue to function as a home for bats. The year also saw the installation of a specially designed gate allowing bats free passage as they flew between the gate’s bars, while keeping out unwelcome visitors who might disturb bats during hibernation – when they are most vulnerable.

Asheville Field Office biologist Sue Cameron (L) joins N.C. Wildlife Resources Commission biologist Katherine Etchison for a bat survey in an abandoned Appalachian iron mine.

The latest chapter in the conservation effort saw the mine and surrounding area purchased by North Carolina philanthropist, conservationist, and tech entrepreneur Tim Sweeney in 2019.

Asheville Field Office biologist Sue Cameron scans the ceiling of an abandoned iron mine, assisting the North Carolina Wildlife Resources Commission with a periodic bat survey in the multi-leveled mine.

This year, state bat biologist Katherine Etchison was joined by fellow Commission staff Kendrick Weeks and Kyle Shute, the Service’s Sue Cameron, and an unlikely addition to the group, videographer Nicholas Mullins. The effort uncovered 13 bats total, representing four species – the dramatic decline from peak numbers due to white-nose syndrome, a fungal disease first seen in New York in 2006 and responsible for the deaths of millions of bats as it spreads across North America.

After being worked for decades, an abandoned iron mine in western North Carolina now serves as an artificial cave for bats. Service biologist Sue Cameron scans the mine ceiling for bats as part of a biannual survey of bats in the cave.

If there was a bright point in the day, it’s that two of the species seen – tricolored and little brown bat – are both under consideration for protection under the Endangered Species Act, so their persistence here is a boon.

N.C. Wildlife Resources Commission biologist Katherine Etchison searches the walls of an abandoned iron mine for bats, as part of a biannual bat survey of the mine.

White-nose syndrome underlies a bittersweet story at this mine. While efforts to conserve the site have enjoyed a string of successes, the mine’s bat population has plummeted. However, conserving the mine provides a home for those bats that don’t succumb to the disease, and it lays the groundwork for a strong long-game, looking to the day when the specter of white-nose syndrome begins to wane and North Carolina’s bat numbers begin to rebound. 

N.C. Wildlife Resources Commission biologist Katherine Etchison (L) and Service biologist Sue Cameron exit an abandoned North Carolina iron mine after surveying a section of it for bats. The mine is so expansive, biologists divide into teams in order to visit the entirety of the mine in a single day. As Etchison and Cameron surveyed one portion of the mine, another two-person team worked a separate portion.