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Soudan Mine goes to bat for its bats

SOUDAN -- Jim Essig didn't flinch when the first bat swooped alongside his head. The second one didn't bother him, either, nor did the fifth or sixth or 10th.

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In the July 2008 file photo, a cluster of little brown bats hangs on the rock walls of level 12 of the Soudan Underground Mine State Park. The bats discolor the area around the rocks that they use. A fungus that spreads a disease that’s almost always fatal to bats has been found in the mine, officials announced Aug. 9, 2013. (Clint Austin / caustin@duluthnews.com)
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SOUDAN -- Jim Essig didn't flinch when the first bat swooped alongside his head. The second one didn't bother him, either, nor did the fifth or sixth or 10th.

After nearly two decades of sharing his underground work space with the world's only flying mammal, Essig, manager of the Soudan Underground Mine State Park, is comfortable with bats.

He'd better be, because there are an awful lot of them down there.

The mine shelters one of the largest bat populations in Minnesota: at least 8,000, and perhaps as many as 40,000 during the winter, Essig said. Drop down to Level 12, about 850 feet below the surface, and you're going to see bats. Same at Level 27, about 2,400 feet underground. At dusk and sometimes during the day, you're likely to see them flitting about the No. 8 shaft as tourists walk in and out.

Bats are attracted to the near-

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perfect combination of steady, cool temperatures, low humidity and seclusion in the mine's empty tunnels. "Essentially, we built a really wonderful home for bats," Essig said.

He sees the bats as one more of the park's natural resources -- just like iron ore was to the miners, and its history is to tourists today.

Until recently, though, most people saw the bats as a nuisance at best and a flying menace at worst. During the active mining years, Essig suspects that bats were routinely squashed. A former miner once told Essig of a practical joke he and his buddies had played on another miner; they stuffed his lunchbox with live bats, which he unknowingly took home to his wife.

rabies threat is low

Even today, bats can get in the way. They crawl into fuse boxes, they leave droppings everywhere, and they love nothing more than getting tangled in women's hair and sharing a dose of rabies.

No -- scratch those last two. Let's get one thing straight: Healthy bats aren't much interested in people, and they'll do what they can to avoid you. But when humans and bats are sharing a low, narrow mine shaft, close encounters are inevitable.

"They bounce off you every once in a while," Essig said. "But if you do have an encounter, it's probably because they are disoriented."

As for rabies, Essig points out that less than 1 percent of all bats carry rabies. None of the bats tested at the Soudan mine have ever been found to carry the disease.

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Ongoing education about bat behavior has helped overcome some of those longstanding fears and myths, Essig said.

MIXED FEELINGS

Catching a glimpse of a bat wouldn't bother park visitors Christina Kolbasuk and Chris Hendrickson of Clarkfield, Minn. "I was hoping to see one," Kolbasuk said after they emerged from a recent underground mine tour.

But for mothers Angie Lothrop of Lakeville and Barbie Cass of Minneapolis, the thought was unsettling. They both looked a little uncertain about their families' tour after learning the mine is home to bats.

"From a distance, they're fine," Cass said. "But up close, they're kind of scary."

"I'm not a big fan," Lothrop said. "They're flying rodents."

Fine, Essig said. You don't have to love bats (which are mammals but not rodents). But it's important to recognize bats' place in the environment -- they are great at insect control and are themselves a food source for anything crafty enough to catch them.

Like the Soudan, many abandoned mines across the country have found new life as bat caves.

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"Mines are an invaluable resource," said Robert Locke, director of publications for Bat Conservation International. Bats turn to man-made roosts when their traditional caves and forests are disturbed, Locke said. And oh, how bats love a nice, dry, abandoned mine shaft.

The problem is, some humans like poking around in these old shafts, too. Mining companies frequently filled in or collapsed old shafts to keep people out, and that often meant thousands of bats were entombed within.

GATE HELPS BATS

Bat Conservation International has pushed one popular solution: Build a bat-friendly gate over the mine shaft, one that keeps people out but lets the bats pass through. One of these gates covers the unused Alaska shaft at the Soudan mine.

"You can hear them flying out at night," Essig said. The sound of their wings hitting the metal grate makes a "ting ting ting ting" noise, he said.

The gates aren't cheap -- the Soudan one cost $80,000 -- but mining companies across the country have been willing to install them, Locke said.

"It's happened hundreds of times, east to west, with literally hundreds of mines," Locke said. Some of those mines might be home to a million bats, while others shelter only a few hundred.

Soudan park employees grant other considerations to their bats. Construction on the multimillion-dollar high-energy physics lab at the mine's lowest level was delayed for months to avoid disturbing the bats. And any bats that blunder into the shaft elevators are captured and released, instead of being squashed.

"There's a bat," one of the guides pointed out to a group waiting to enter the mine on a recent day. The bat circled the cage mechanism for a moment before flying off toward an open pit -- and then a falcon swooped in and nabbed it for lunch.

Hungry falcons and collapsed mine shafts aside, bats face a number of other problems. Bats die after eating

pesticide-laced bugs; they can die if they are disturbed during their winter hibernation by curious cave explorers. A worrisome new disease called "white nose syndrome" is decimating bat populations in the eastern United States, though it hasn't appeared in Minnesota yet.

But they can still find refuge in the Soudan mine.

"There's a reason for bats being here," Essig said. "We want to take care of what we've got."

JANNA GOERDT covers the communities surrounding Duluth. She can be reached weekdays at (218) 279-5527 or by e-mail at jgoerdt@duluthnews.com .

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